Food Writing: A cookbook that changed my life

Getting ready for the food writing workshop I’m planning for Maine Media Workshops in Rockport in July (view link), I’ve been reading and re-reading some of my favorites. One is the British writer Elizabeth David, not so well known as, I believe, she should be.

She was difficult, cantankerous, opinionated, haughty and very beautiful. She also, it was said, detested both journalists and Americans, so when I approached Elizabeth David through an intermediary, seeking to write a profile of her for the New York Times, I half expected that she would turn me down. As she did.

Unhappily, then, I never met her in person. But I had been following David since I first encountered her French Provincial Cooking back in 1962 when Harper & Brothers, my employer at the time,published the American edition. Back then, even juniors could help themselves to the books as they came out, and so it was that I rushed home to my West Village apartment to begin assembling the ingredients for Ratatouille Niçoise, that combination of eggplant (aubergines in David’s rendering), zucchini (courgettes, ditto), peppers, onions, and tomatoes that is the very essence of Provencal cuisine. “Garlic is optional,” David wrote, “but the cooking medium must be olive oil.”

Words to warm my heart.

Unfortunately, neither I nor David had reckoned with the fact that, whether aubergines or eggplants,
what was available at my Gristede’s in Sullivan Square was a great deal larger than their like in England or Provence. Three large aubergines, which the recipe called for, resulted in ratatouille for about 16 people and I ate and served and recycled ratatouille for at least a week thereafter. But it was one of the most delicious things I ever put in my mouth.

And I remain a lifelong David groupie, reading her, as we are wont to say, like a novel, in bed, before turning out the light. Here’s an example of why:

She is talking here about Chez Nénette, an historic restaurant in Montpellier in the Languedoc: Any reasonably good restaurant she wrote, can provide oysters, foie gras, smoked salmon and caviar—it’s only a matter of selection. “But,” she goes on to say, “the eye which picked out those bowls, the taste which decreed what was to go into them, and the hand which carved the butter into its meticulously studied carelessness of shape are scarcely likely to falter when it comes to the silver sea-bass roasted over a vinewood fire, the langouste in its tomato and brandy and garlic-scented sauce, the salad dressed with the fruity olive oil of Provence.”

And the eye that noticed all that and wrote about it so tellingly is similarly unfaltering. This is nostalgia of a very high order. (I tried for years, every time I was anywhere near Montpellier, to find Chez Nénette; today the restaurant exists only in postcards that seem to be widely available on the internet.)

In everything she wrote, even when writing a history of ice cream, which she did in her later years, David brought her eye, her palate, her sensibility to bear on what was put in front of her. She didn’t just write recipes, she evoked an entire kitchen, an entire way of considering food and its paramount importance in our lives. All of France rises up in the pages of French Provincial Cooking, so you don’t, you feel, ever have to go back there again. But you do have to rush to the kitchen, as I did, to try to recreate that feeling.

Here’s a page from my first edition of French Provincial Cooking.
Note the date scrawled in the margin: 8/30/63, when I first made Carré de Porc Provençale, and you can tell by the splotches and grease stains all over the page that I have made it many times since.
It’s interesting to think that French Provincial Cooking was published just a year after Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, clearly, had a much greater impact on the way Americans cook, but Elizabeth David was a subtler influence. Her writing deeply affected Alice Waters and Alice’s restaurants, and her thinking, inspired by Elizabeth David, have brought about massive changes in how we approach the table, the farm, the garden, the market and, indeed, the kitchen. Through Waters, David’s reach has been subtle, yes, but pretty enormous.



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