Do you still cook Elizabeth David’s recipes 60 years on from her first book? Which of the current crop of cookery kings and queens will still be remembered in 2070?
Sixty years. Three generations. That’s how much time has passed since the publication of Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food, which launched its author not just as a literary success but as a kind of gastronomic deity.
Celebrations are afoot, naturally. There’s a new collection of David’s work, At Elizabeth David’s Table: Her Very Best Everyday Recipes, which includes short essays as well as recipes. The wonderful Clarke’s restaurant in London is serving menus using her recipes from 19-24 October. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has written about cooking for the grande dame in the introduction to the new volume, and no doubt other encomia will follow.
But I wonder: how long can this keep going on? Cooks of a certain age may regard the great ED with reverence, for she introduced them to European exotica such as avgolemono, osso buco and pissaladiÃ¨re. But does she matter to younger cooks, for whom exotic cuisines are a commonplace â€“ and who have access to 1,000 times more cookery writing than David’s original readership could find in print?
And in 10, 20, 50 years, will anyone still care much about her? I conducted a casual poll among young cooks of my acquaintance to find out what David meant to them. Among those with a professional interest in food, not surprisingly, the name still means a lot. Monaz Dumasia, Assistant Home Economist at Good Housekeeping, says: “Her attitude about food being simple and fresh is a song that’s still being sung. People like Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver have, in a way, made a career from continuing where she left off.”
But among those who cook solely for pleasure, the picture looks different. A surprising number of 20-somethings had never even heard of her. One is my daughter Alice, an enthusiastic cook and reader of cookbooks. Many others knew the name but couldn’t tell me anything about her.
There are good reasons to doubt whether David’s books will last well. Cookbooks, like all books, reflect the spirit of their age, and David’s intellectual, scholarly approach today seems remote. When she writes in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970) about “claims regarding the superior nature of Gorgona anchovies” (based on “the fine salt of Tuscany”, if you’re wondering), it’s probably hard for many of us to get worked up one way or another.
Another problem lies in her recipes. They are usually written with experienced cooks in mind, often leaving measurements and methods less precise than we’re used to, for example white wine and brandy for a canard en daube in French Country Cooking are measured by the tumbler and liqueur glass respectively. The presentation of recipes on the page is also old-fashioned, and references to suppliers, restaurants etc give some of the books an antiquarian feel.
David is also little exposed in the broadcast media, which dominate the consumption of cookery instruction. Many of the older books that go on selling well are those whose authors keep getting on telly. What will happen when they’ve disappeared from the screen? Well, the late Keith Floyd published over 30 cookbooks arising from his immensely successful TV career. According to his literary agent, only three are still in print.
Parenthetically, I wonder how David would have fared had she come onto the scene today. Jill Norman, her long-time editor and literary executor, notes that “Elizabeth hated performing and hated public appearances.” She fumed when a photographer took her picture in the street and published it in a newspaper. Not exactly a recipe for success in the age of the celebrity cook.
Even among food writers there is something of a backlash against David. Xanthe Clay gave an eloquent talk at the recent Abergavenny Food Festival in which she compared David unfavourably with Jane Grigson. WoM’s own Tim Hayward has publicly lambasted her for making UK cooks look to the Mediterranean as the ultimate gastronomic paradise.
What’s your view? Do you read Elizabeth David? Cook her recipes? Dismiss her as a fossil? And while we’re speculating, here’s another question for you: which of the cooking kings and queens of today will still be read in 5, 10 or 20 years’ time? Will they have the staying power of Elizabeth David, or are they just a flash in the sautÃ© pan?