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Elizabeth David CBE (born Elizabeth Gwynne; 26 December 1913 – 22 May 1992) was a British cookery writer who, in the mid-20th century, strongly influenced the revitalisation of the art of home cookery with articles and books about European cuisines and traditional British dishes.
Born to an upper-class family, David rebelled against social norms of the day. She studied art in Paris, became an actress, and ran off with a married man with whom she sailed in a small boat to Sicily, where their boat was confiscated. They were nearly trapped by the German invasion of Greece in 1940 but escaped to Egypt where they parted. She then worked for the British government, running a library in Cairo. While there she married, but the marriage was not long lived.
After the war, David returned to England, and, dismayed by the gloom and bad food, wrote a series of articles about Mediterranean food that caught the public imagination. Books on French and Italian cuisine followed, and within ten years David was a major influence on British cooking. She was deeply hostile to second-rate cooking and to bogus substitutes for classic dishes and ingredients. She introduced a generation of British cooks to Mediterranean food hitherto barely known in Britain, such as pasta, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salami, aubergines, red and green peppers, and courgettes.
David opened a shop selling kitchen equipment in the 1960s. It continued to trade under her name after she left it in 1973, but her reputation rests on her articles and her books, which have been constantly reprinted.
David was born Elizabeth Gwynne, the second of four children, all daughters, of Rupert Sackville Gwynne and the Hon. Stella Ridley, daughter of the 1st Viscount Ridley. Both parents' families had considerable fortunes, the Gwynnes from engineering and land speculation, and the Ridleys from coal mining. Through the two families, David was of English, Scottish and Welsh or Irish descent, and, through an ancestor on her father's side, also Dutch and Sumatran. David and her sisters grew up in Wootton Manor in Sussex, a Jacobean manor house with extensive modern additions by Detmar Blow. Her father, who had a weak heart, nevertheless insisted on pursuing a demanding political career, becoming Conservative MP for Eastbourne, and a junior minister in Andrew Bonar Law's government. Overwork, combined with his vigorous recreational pastimes, chiefly racing, riding and adultery, brought about his death in 1924, aged 51.[n 1] Elizabeth and her sisters Priscilla, Diana and Felicité, who had little affection from their widowed mother, were sent away to boarding schools.
As a teenager, David enjoyed painting, and her mother thought her talent worth developing. She was sent to Paris in 1930, enrolling at the Sorbonne for a course in French civilisation which covered history, literature and architecture. She lodged with a Parisian family, whose fanatical devotion to the pleasures of the table she portrayed to comic effect in her French Provincial Cooking (1960). Nevertheless, she acknowledged in retrospect that the experience had been the most valuable part of her time in Paris: "I realized in what way the family had fulfilled their task of instilling French culture into at least one of their British charges. Forgotten were the Sorbonne professors. … What had stuck was the taste for a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before." Stella Gwynne was not eager for her daughter's early return to England, after qualifying for her Sorbonne diploma, and sent her from Paris to Munich in 1931 to study German.
Back in England, David unenthusiastically went through the social rituals for upper-class young women of presentation at court as a débutante and the associated dances. The respectable young Englishmen she met at the latter did not appeal to her. She decided that she was not good enough as a painter, and to her mother's displeasure chose instead to become an actress. She joined the Oxford Repertory Company in 1933, and moved to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London the following year. Among her colleagues in the Regent's Park company was an actor nine years her senior, Charles Gibson-Cowan. His disregard for social conventions appealed strongly to her, and she also found him sexually irresistible. His being married did not daunt either of them.
David rented rooms in a large house near the park, spent a generous 21st birthday present on equipping the kitchen, and learned to cook. A gift from her mother of The Gentle Art of Cookery by Hilda Leyel was her first cookery book. She later wrote, "I wonder if I would have ever learned to cook at all if I had been given a routine Mrs Beeton to learn from, instead of the romantic Mrs Leyel with her rather wild, imagination-catching recipes."
Recognising that she was not going to be a success on the stage, David worked for a while as a junior assistant at the fashion house of Worth, but she found the subservience of retail work irksome. She left in early 1938, and she and Gibson-Cowan bought a boat, just big enough to suffice, with the intention of sailing it to Greece. They crossed the Channel in July 1939 and navigated the boat through the canal system of France. They halted at Marseille and then, for more than six months, at Antibes, where David met and became greatly influenced by the ageing writer Norman Douglas, about whom she later wrote extensively.[n 2] He inspired her love of the Mediterranean, encouraged her interest in good food, and taught her to "search out the best, insist on it, and reject all that was bogus and second-rate." David and Gibson-Cowan finally left Antibes in May 1940, sailing to Corsica and then to Sicily, where they were suspected of spying and were interned. After 19 days in custody in various parts of Italy, they were allowed to cross into Yugoslavia. They had lost almost everything they possessed – the boat, money, manuscripts, notebooks and David's cherished collection of recipes. With the help of the British Consul in Zagreb they got to Athens in July 1940. By this time, David was no longer in love with her partner, but remained with him from necessity. Gibson-Cowan got a job teaching English on the island of Syros, where David learnt to cook with the fresh ingredients available locally. When the Germans invaded Greece in April 1941, the couple managed to leave on a civilian convoy to Egypt.
Able to speak excellent French and good German, David secured a job in the naval cipher office in Alexandria. She was quickly rescued from her temporary refugee accommodation, having met an old English friend who had an "absurdly grandiose" flat in the city and invited her to keep house for him. She and Gibson-Cowan amicably went their separate ways, and she moved into the grand flat. She engaged a cook, Kyriacou, a Greek refugee, whose eccentricities (sketched in a chapter of Is There a Nutmeg in the House?) did not prevent him from producing magnificent food: "The flavour of that octopus stew, the rich wine dark sauce and the aroma of mountain herbs was something not easily forgotten." In 1942 she caught an infection that affected her feet. She spent some weeks in hospital and felt obliged to give up her job in the cypher office. David then moved to Cairo, where she was asked to set up and run the Ministry of Information's reference library. The library was open to everyone and was much in demand by journalists and other writers. Her circle of friends in this period included Alan Moorehead, Freya Stark, Bernard Spencer, Patrick Kinross, Olivia Manning and Lawrence Durrell. At her tiny flat in the city, she employed Suleiman, a Sudanese suffragi (a cook-housekeeper). She recalled:
Suleiman performed minor miracles with two Primus stoves and an oven which was little more than a tin box perched on top of them. His soufflés were never less than successful. … For three or four years I lived mainly on rather rough but highly flavoured colourful shining vegetable dishes, lentil or fresh tomato soups, delicious spiced pilaffs, lamb kebabs grilled over charcoal, salads with cool mint-flavoured yoghurt dressings, the Egyptian fellahin dish of black beans with olive oil and lemon and hard-boiled eggs – these things were not only attractive but also cheap.
In her years in Cairo, David had a number of affairs. She enjoyed them for what they were, but with one exception she did not fall in love.[n 3] Several of her young men, however, fell in love with her; one of them was Lieutenant-Colonel Tony David. By now in her thirties, David weighed the advantages and disadvantages of remaining a spinster until such time as the ideal husband might appear, and with considerable misgivings she finally accepted Tony David's proposal of marriage.
Elizabeth Gwynne married Tony David in Cairo on 30 August 1944. Within a year, her husband was posted to India. She followed him there in January 1946, but she found life as the wife of an officer of the British Raj tedious, the social life dull, and the food generally "frustrating". In June 1946, she suffered severe sinusitis and was told by her doctors that the condition would persist if she remained in the summer heat of Delhi. Instead she was advised to go back to England. She did so; her biographer Artemis Cooper observes, "She had been away from England for six years, and in that time she, and England, had changed beyond recognition."
Returning after her years of Mediterranean warmth and access to a profusion of fresh ingredients, David found her native country in the post-war period grey and daunting. She encountered terrible food: "There was flour and water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread and gristle rissoles; dehydrated onions and carrots; corned beef toad in the hole. I need not go on." She met an old flame in London, and their affair was rekindled, but when Colonel David returned from India in 1947, she immediately resumed the role of wife, and they set up home in Chelsea, which was to remain her home for the rest of her life. Tony David proved ineffectual in civilian life, unable to find a suitable job, and ran up debts.
Partly to earn some money, and partly from an "agonized craving for the sun", David began writing articles on Mediterranean cookery. Her first efforts were published in 1949 in the British magazine Harper's Bazaar. From the outset, David refused to sell the copyright of her articles, and so she was able to collect and edit them for publication in book form. Even before all the articles had been published, she had assembled them into a typescript volume called A Book of Mediterranean Food and submitted it to a series of publishers, all of whom turned it down. One of them explained that a collection of unconnected recipes needed linking text. David took this advice, but conscious of her inexperience as a writer she kept her own prose short and quoted extensively from established authors whose views on the Mediterranean might carry more weight. In the published volume, the sections are linked by substantial extracts from works by writers including Norman Douglas, Lawrence Durrell, Gertrude Stein, D. H. Lawrence, Osbert Sitwell, Compton Mackenzie, Arnold Bennett, Henry James and Théophile Gautier. She submitted the revised typescript to John Lehmann, a publisher more associated with poetry than cookery, but he accepted it, agreeing to an advance payment of £100. A Book of Mediterranean Food was published in 1950.
David placed great importance on the illustration of books,[n 4] and writers including Cyril Ray and John Arlott commented that the drawings by John Minton added to the attractions of the book. David herself was less convinced by Minton's black and white drawings, but described his jacket design as "stunning". She was especially taken with "his beautiful Mediterranean bay, his tables spread with white cloths and bright fruit" and the way that "pitchers and jugs and bottles of wine could be seen far down the street." Finding the book selling rapidly, Lehmann commissioned David to write, and Minton to illustrate, a sequel. This was French Country Cooking. David gave Minton detailed instructions about some of his drawings, and was more pleased with them in this volume. David dedicated the book to her mother, despite their difficult relationship.
With the earnings from articles commissioned by magazine editors in the wake of the success of the first book, and the advance on the second book, David was able to tour France before completing the manuscript. This was her last holiday with her husband and was not wholly successful. Once French Country Cooking was finished, David decided to live in France for a time, leaving her husband in London. She spent a cold spring and a warm summer in Provence, from which her fourth book, Summer Cooking was partly drawn. Work on that book was postponed, as David had agreed with Lehmann that her next work should be about Italian food.
Since the brief and unpleasant time there with Charles Gibson-Cowan in 1940, David had been in Italy only once, to visit Norman Douglas in Capri in 1951. She returned to Italy in March 1952 and spent nearly a year travelling around the country collecting material. By the time she completed the book, Lehmann's publishing firm had been closed down by its parent company, and David found herself under contract to Macdonald, another imprint within the same group. She intensely disliked the company and wrote a most unflattering portrait of it in a 1985 article.
Italian Food, with illustrations by Renato Guttuso, was published in 1954. At the time, many of the ingredients used in the recipes were hardly known in Britain. Looking back in 1963, David wrote, "In Soho but almost nowhere else, such things as Italian pasta, and Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salame, and occasionally Parma ham were to be had. With southern vegetables such as aubergines, red and green peppers, fennel, the tiny marrows called by the French courgettes and in Italy zucchini, much the same situation prevailed." David was less en rapport with Italy than with Greece and southern France, and found preparing and writing her Italian Food (1954) "uncommonly troublesome". The effort she put into the book was recognised by reviewers. The Times Literary Supplement wrote, "More than a collection of recipes, this book is in effect a readable and discerning dissertation on Italian food and regional dishes, and their preparation in the English kitchen." The Observer remarked, "Mrs. David … may be counted among the benefactors of humanity." In The Sunday Times, Evelyn Waugh named Italian Food as one of the two books that had given him the most pleasure in that year.
For Summer Cooking, published in 1955, David left Macdonald and signed with the publisher Museum Press. This book, her fourth, reflected her strong belief in eating food in season; she loved "the pleasure of rediscovering each season's vegetables" and thought it "rather dull to eat the same food all year round." Unconstrained by the geographical agendas of her first three books, David wrote about dishes from Britain, India, Mauritius, Russia, Spain and Turkey, as well as France, Italy and Greece. Soon after the publication of this book, David was wooed away from her regular column in Harper's by Vogue magazine, which offered her more money and more prominence.
With her increased income from Vogue and The Sunday Times, to which she also contributed regularly, David was able to visit many different areas of France. On these trips she completed her research on the book for which, according to Artemis Cooper in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, she would be best remembered: French Provincial Cooking (1960). The book was dedicated to "P.H, with love". The initials concealed the name of Peter Higgins, with whom David had an affair that lasted throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Tony David was by now out of her life and had lived in Spain from 1953; they divorced in 1960. Reviews of the new book were as complimentary as those for its predecessors. The Times Literary Supplement wrote, "French Provincial Cooking needs to be read rather than referred to quickly. It discourses at some length the type and origin of the dishes popular in various French regions, as well as the culinary terms, herbs and kitchen equipment used in France. But those who can give the extra time to this book will be well repaid by dishes such as La Bourride de Charles Bérot and Cassoulet Colombié."[n 5] The Observer said that it was difficult to think of any home that could do without the book and called David "a very special kind of genius".
In 1960, David stopped writing for The Sunday Times, where she was unhappy about editorial interference with her copy, and joined the weekly publication The Spectator. Cooper writes, "Her professional career was at its height. She was hailed not only as Britain's foremost writer on food and cookery, but as the woman who had transformed the eating habits of middle-class England." Her books were now reaching a wide public, having been reprinted in paperback by the mass-market Penguin Books. Her private life was less felicitous. She was greatly distressed at the ending of her affair with Higgins, who fell in love with a younger woman, and for a period she drank too much brandy and resorted too often to sleeping pills. Probably as a result of these factors, and overwork, in 1963, when she was 49, David suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She recovered, but her sense of taste was temporarily affected, and her confidence was badly shaken.
Together with four business partners, David opened a shop selling kitchen equipment. The partners were spurred on by the recent success of Terence Conran's Habitat shops, which sold among much else imported kitchen equipment for which there was evidently a market. Elizabeth David Ltd opened at 46 Bourne Street, Pimlico, in November 1965.
David was uncompromising in her choice of merchandise; despite its large range of kitchen implements, the shop famously did not stock garlic presses. David wrote an article called "Garlic Presses are Utterly Useless", refused to sell them, and advised customers who demanded them to go elsewhere.[n 6] Not available elsewhere, by contrast, were booklets by David printed specially for the shop. Some of them were later incorporated into the collections of her essays and articles, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine and Is There a Nutmeg in the House?.
David continued to write articles for magazines. She still included many recipes but increasingly wrote about places – markets, auberges, farms – and people, including profiles of famous chefs and gourmets such as Marcel Boulestin and Edouard de Pomiane. In her later articles, she expressed strongly-held views on a wide range of subjects; she abominated the word "crispy", demanding to know what it conveyed that "crisp" did not;[n 7] she confessed to an inability to refill anybody's wineglass until it was empty; she insisted on the traditional form "Welsh rabbit" rather than the modern invention "Welsh rarebit"; she poured scorn on the Guide Michelin's standards; she deplored "fussy garnish ... distract[ing] from the main flavours"; she inveighed against the ersatz: "anyone depraved enough to invent a dish consisting of a wedge of steam-heated bread spread with tomato paste and a piece of synthetic Cheddar can call it a pizza."
While running the shop, David wrote another full-length book, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970), the first of a projected series on English cookery. The shop was never profitable, but David would not lower her standards in search of a commercial return. Gradually her partners found her approach unsustainable, and in 1973 she left the business. To her annoyance, the shop continued to trade under her name, as it was legally entitled to do.
In 1977 David was badly injured in a car accident, from which she took a long time to recover. While she was in hospital, the last book that she completed unaided, English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), was published. Its scholarship won high praise, and The Times Literary Supplement suggested that a copy of the book should be given to every marrying couple. When she recovered from the accident, David pressed on with her researches for her next project, Harvest of the Cold Months: the Social History of Ice and Ices. While the elements of this work were being slowly assembled, David published a book of her favourites of her essays and press articles, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984). This book was compiled with the help of Jill Norman, who became her literary executor and edited further David works after the author's death.
In the 1980s, David made several visits to California, which she much enjoyed, but her health began to fail. She suffered a succession of falls which resulted in several spells in hospital. The death in 1986 of her younger sister Felicité, who had lived in the top floor of her house for thirty years, was a severe blow to David. In May 1992 she suffered a stroke, followed two days later by another, which was fatal. She died at her Chelsea home on 22 May 1992, aged 78, and was buried on 28 May at the family church of St Peter's, Folkington.
David won the Glenfiddich Writer of the Year award for English Bread and Yeast Cookery. She was also awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Essex and Bristol, and the award of a Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. However, the honour that most pleased her was being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 in recognition of her skills as a writer. In 1986 she was awarded a CBE.
David has appeared in fictional form at least twice. In 2000 a novel, Lunch with Elizabeth David, by Roger Williams was published by Carroll & Graf, and in 2006, the BBC broadcast Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, a film starring Catherine McCormack as Elizabeth David and Greg Wise as Peter Higgins. David's papers are at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
In 2012, to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, David was chosen by BBC Radio 4 as one of the 60 Britons who have been most influential during the 60 years of the Queen's reign. In 2013 her portrait was one of series of first-class stamps issued to celebrate the centenary of ten "Great Britons]". The writer Auberon Waugh wrote that if asked to name the woman who had brought about the greatest improvement in English life in the 20th century, "my vote would go to Elizabeth David." David's biographer Artemis Cooper concludes her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article thus:
David was the best writer on food and drink this country has ever produced. When she began writing in the 1950s, the British scarcely noticed what was on their plates at all, which was perhaps just as well. Her books and articles persuaded her readers that food was one of life's great pleasures, and that cooking should not be a drudgery but an exciting and creative act. In doing so she inspired a whole generation not only to cook, but to think about food in an entirely different way.
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