Monday, 18 May 2009
A goddess amongst food writers
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David
Where does one begin? I've got four of Elizabeth David's cookery books, but haven’t really used them much. Yet I knew that I wanted to read this collection of her writings and reviews.
Once in my sweaty palms, I imagined that it would make good bedtime reading – a couple of articles here, a review or two there before dropping off to sleep – but rapidly found that I didn’t want to put it down. And anyway, it didn't really prove to be very effective at sending me to the land of nod.
What makes it so good? Attempting to answer that is to attempt to answer just why David is so revered in the UK. When she rang Books for Cooks one day and spoke to then staffer Clarissa Dickson Wright (of TV’s Two Fat ladies), Dickson Wright was so astonished that she tried to explain to her caller that it was like picking up the phone to God.
There are plenty of myths surrounding David: for instance, that until she introduced the UK to olive oil, you could only buy it in chemists’ shops. Or that pasta was unknown here until she wrote about it.
These are, as mentioned, myths. But the reality is that her writing pointed many more people to go and find and use such products than had done so before, thus increasing their use (and availability) in the UK.
She was an early campaigner for ‘real food’ – her anger at standardised, flavourless tomatoes in this book will ring bells with anyone who has had the misfortune to eat tasteless fruits sold under that name. What is interesting is to realise that such a problem is not something that has only occurred with the dominance of supermarkets within the last 40 years, but pre-dates that. Which begs the question of why the British are prepared to put up with such foodstuffs.
There have been accusations of elitism in her work – primarily that she didn’t write specifically for the working class. But that strikes me as nit-picking. Should every writer of every genre attempt to write for every single social group (however those groups are defined)? Would it even be possible? Wouldn’t it be patronising?
And her approach to food is far from snobbish – she was incensed when one reviewer commented with utter disdain on her positive reports of the Catalan breakfast of bread that’s had garlic rubbed on it. The reviewer in question thought this awful, and in this collection, there is a piece where David berates such an attitude – including noting that such a food has similarities with such British foods as bread and dripping.
Indeed, David was a champion of simple food. Frequently, she upholds simplicity over fashionable, but overdone dishes.
However, what this collection shows, and what is almost certainly the main reason for the way in which she’s lauded, is that she was a brilliant writer – and not just about food, but also about travel and history.
This is full of the sort of evocative writing that can have you sitting outside a simple café in Provence, sipping good wine, reveling in the warmth and enjoying a dish of good olives, or wandering around a French market. You can almost inhale it.
She’s inspirational. You want to try more – to learn more. Very few writers of any genre leave you with quite that feeling.