Today is the centenary of the celebrated British food writer Elizabeth David, born on Boxing Day in 1913. After a fairly conventional upbringing as the daughter of a Conservative MP, Elizabeth left England in the late 1930s on a voyage of adventure round the Mediterranean and was stranded in the south of France when the Second World War broke out. She lived for a time on a Greek island and then worked as a librarian for the Ministry of Information in Egypt at the end of the war.
On her return to England, Elizabeth was shocked by the standard of food in Austerity Britain and keen to spread the benefits of the simple and colourful Mediterranean diet she had enjoyed abroad. She submitted a few articles to Harper’s Bazaar which were well received and soon became a regular columnist for both Harper’s and Vogue. In all her writing, food is linked to the places she lived, memories of shared meals and nostalgia for sunnier, more colourful climates. Her recipes read almost like fiction to her early readers, deprived of the fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs Elizabeth was so fond of. Anne Scott-James, her editor at Harper’s Bazaar, commented that Elizabeth ‘wrote beautifully, right from the start. You could smell the shrimps, hear the fishwives talking on the quay. She was old enough to write well, and it was clearly not run of the mill. There was this feeling that she wasn’t thinking how to do it, but was always associating it with places, always with places – with mountains, with ports, with beautiful villages.’
Her regular magazine columns inspired readers to introduce more simple dishes in the Mediterranean style into their home cooking. For example in her Harper’s Entertaining Plan for the holiday season of 1953/54, Elizabeth recommends serving ‘one or two meals entirely unconnected with the Christmas fare. A luncheon, for example, consisting of some form of pasta or rice with an unusual sauce, followed by a salad, cheese and fruit, would provide a welcome rest for all.’ This menu seems normal to us today, but in the 1950s a meat-free lunch with pasta would have been quite revolutionary. The rest of the article includes suggestions for using up the turkey and wines to go with each dish, finishing with a cocktail recipe provided by the Port Wine Growers Association: 4 glasses of tawny port, 4 dashes of orange bitters, 1 teaspoonful of angostura bitters and 1 teaspoon of Cointreau shaken with ice and a snippet of orange peel floated on top of each glass.
The picture above comes from the January 1957 issue of Vogue, when Elizabeth speculates that “a certain surfeit, perhaps, of poultry, game and rich foods enjoyed during the Christmas festivities causes gastronomic thoughts, at this moment of the year, to turn to the fresh clean tastes of shellfish, to astringent vegetables such as endive and spinach, to winter salads composed of raw celery, fennel, corn salad, shredded celeariac, sliced oranges”. She provides recipes for mussels, a venison and wine stew, and a puree of celeriac and potatoes, good simple but hearty fare for the winter months. An advert on the facing page highlights how elaborate the more typical recipes of the time were by comparison: Lady Constance Osborn recommends using Maggi (a sort of British equivalent of soy sauce manufactured by Nestle) in a Flan de Printemps, a pastry case filled with layers of sliced hardboiled eggs and tomatoes, lamb chops and minted peas all suspended in aspic jelly.
Elizabeth David went on to write many cookery books still collected and cited by the top chefs today. Titles such as An Omelette and a Glass of Wine provide just as much pleasure to read for entertainment as to use in the kitchen, and we can see her elegant writing style evolving in these early magazine columns. We hold print runs of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in our Special Collections, available to consult in the Reading Room in the Aldham Robarts Library.