Magazine article The Spectator

A Better Judge of Food Than Men

Magazine article The Spectator

A Better Judge of Food Than Men

Article excerpt


by Lisa Chaney

Macmillan, L20, pp. 484

At an auction of Elizabeth David's household goods, following her death in 1992, an admirer paid L300 for some wooden spoons in an earthenware jar. Elizabeth David changed not only the way people ate in the dreary years of post-war rationing, but the way they thought about food. As Joyce Molyneaux, the chef, said of A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), 'A lot of the food she was talking about was like fiction.' Immensely well read and knowledgeable, she was also a food historian. Elizabeth David Ltd, stacked with French kitchenware, opened in 1965 and set a vogue for hundreds of similar ventures. She was a remarkable woman, though this is an unremarkable book, sadly in need of editing. Lisa Chaney's prose is a wooden and pallid affair beside the vivid sensuality of David's own, and while she tackles her professional life competently enough, she flounders before the complexities of the personal.

By all accounts, Elizabeth was a very tricky customer -- 'a terrible handful' in the words of Patrick Leigh Fermor. She was a `grande dame' from an early age; also a loyal friend, but one who demanded a high degree of subservience. She was rude, unforgiving and very funny. She drank heavily, smoked heroically and dressed beautifully. A friend described her as a `myopic black swan', which captures her extreme short-sightedness, her dark, slightly oriental looks and her physical grace.

Elizabeth and her three sisters grew up in Sussex. Her father, Rupert Gwynne, was the local MP. Her mother, Stella, was distinctly unmaternal - her children referred to her in their letters to each other as `the Hon Lady' - but passed on her 'eye' for furniture and painting to her daughter. Elizabeth's was a typical privileged Edwardian childhood, a legacy of which was an abiding loathing of English nursery food (much later she became fascinated by English food, especially its history).

She started out on the stage, for which her talent was minimal, joining the repertory company at the Oxford Playhouse. From Oxford she wrote to her sister, Felicite:

I cooked my own lunch today. I had sausages and tomatoes and French onions and green peas. Then loganberries and cream and then cheese and then celery and then coffee,

an unsophisticated, but not insubstantial meal for a girl who'd barely set foot in a kitchen. After a few rackety years in London - Elizabeth was always short of money and relied on her family for handouts - she embarked, in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, on an adventure with her then lover, Charles Gibson Cowan. …

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