Although Elizabeth David was the very reverse of a recluse, she was famously reluctant to divulge information about herself to her readership, claiming that everything to be said was said in her books. We must take leave to doubt this, in the light of Artemis Cooper's Writing at the Kitchen Table
, which follows on the heels of Lisa Chaney's Elizabeth David: A Mediterranean Passion
. The more that is revealed about her, the more interesting she becomes. Artemis Cooper is the "authorised" biographer, writing with access to a mass of personal papers but this is not a hagiography. Mrs David, as crisply but sympathetically drawn in these pages, was a fascinating egotist, beautiful with a hard sensuality, generous but capable of furious rages and lasting grudges. She learned a valuable lesson in self-centredness from the quintessentially louche Norman Douglas, who in many ways seems to have been a key influence. Clearly she was not exactly a nice person, although it is encouraging (and not entirely surprising) to discover that she had a really dirty laugh--more of a cackle, in fact, it appears.
The story is well told: The patrician background she flouted (but not too much); the flight from England, greyness and failure; the rackety wartime years spent knocking around the Mediterranean in the company of high Bohemians such as Lawrence Durrell; the marriage of convenience in Cairo that at least gave her the status of a married woman but was soon abandoned; the lovers; the return to London and the start of a dazzling writing career; the fame and the status; the shop; the stroke that affected both palate and libido; the troubled later years. On none of this need she be judged and Artemis Cooper does not. After all, Elizabeth David was right. The best of her is in the writing; and the best of her was the precise, attentive, sensual appreciation of food and cooking. We must remember that above all she was an exquisitely skilful cook, whose influence, though mostly indirect, has been incalculable. It's all the more moving, then, to learn that at her funeral, "among the wreaths and baskets of flowers, and the violets she loved, someone had left a loaf of bread and a bunch of herbs tied up in brown paper." --Robin Davidson
"[Elizabeth David] is to me probably the greatest food writer we have."-- James Beard"It can be said that Elizabeth David's discovery of Italy changed foreverthe serious cooks conception of Italian cuisine." -- Julia Child"Elizabeth David stood for: excellence of ingredients, simplicity of preparation, respect for tradition. She stood against: fuss, overdecoration, pretentiousness.... [She] wrote as she, cooked: with simplicity purity, color, [and] self-effacing authority."-- Julian Barnes, "The New Yorker""At last we have this vivid portrait of Elizabeth David by Artemis Cooper, who not only writes like an angel, but has done her research with great skill and obvious enjoyment."-- "Sunday Times" (London)