No one single person has had such an effect on the eating habits of a nation as Elizabeth David. This British born writer and cookbook author was the major influence on dragging post war English cookery into the twentieth century. She led an inspirational, tumultuous and prolific life in both her work and personal affairs.
Born Elizabeth Gwynne on the 26th of December 1913, in East Sussex. The young Elizabeth was sent to boarding school, along with her three sisters before being billeted to a French family at the age of sixteen. She studied art and literature in Paris for several years while at the same time learning how different cultures approach the act of sitting to dine.
Upon returning to England and to the dismay of her family, she harbored designs on becoming an actress. It was in this early stage of her life that she met Charles Gibson Cowan, one of the first of many loves in her life. Together they bought and restored a small sailing boat with romantic plans of a Mediterranean sea-borne idyll. It may well have been as such, had they not embarked on their journey as Europe fell to the clutches of the Second World War. They only made it as far as Sicily, where they were arrested on suspicion of spying and their boat confiscated. After three weeks detention, the couple fled to Greece, but they were only one step ahead of the war, which pushed them further to Egypt where Elizabeth Gwynne and Cowan parted.
Gwynne enjoyed the hedonistic social life in wartime Cairo for several years and met her husband, Tony David. They married in 1944 and she accompanied him to India where he was called as part of his duties as an officer. She had a desperately unhappy time there and once wrote to a friend that she felt the 'Jungle is closing over me".
Returning to England in 1947, David took a much needed sabbatical to Ross-On-Wye with a lover she met in Cairo, George Laselle. It was to be a journey that would change her life. Reminiscing on her time in the Mediterranean and with Laselle's encouragement she began her first book. The result was her groundbreaking 1950 opus Mediterranean food. The book had a profound impact on British kitchens. Over the next 30 years, David went on to amass an extensive body of work espousing the virtues of at first Mediterranean cookery, then later the forgotten art of fine British cookery. (Scratch the surface, it is not an oxymoron.)
In 1960 she published French Provincial Cooking. A Tour-de-Force that has been referred to as one of the most important and influential cookery books of the Twentieth Century. New reprints of this book are still released today and I own a treasured, well-thumbed copy myself.
David suffered a stroke in 1964 that tragically affected her sense of taste (and somewhat infamously, her appetite for sex) and she began a hiatus from writing. She opened a famous cookery store in London soon after, but the ensuing years were to prove a tumultuous emotional period. She fell out with the co-owners of the store, one of which was a close friend, then endured the death of several close relatives and friends. Her final years were spent mostly out of the public eye, surrounded by a small and cherished group of friends. She died in 1992. Her work is often referred to by, and an inspiration to subsequent food writers such as Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden, Stephanie Alexander and Alice Waters.
- Mediterranean Food, 1950
- French Country Cooking, 1951
- Italian Food, 1954
- Summer Cooking, 1955
- French Provincial Cooking, 1960
- English Potted Meats and Fish Pastes, 1968
- Syllabubs and Fruit Fools, 1969
- Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, 1970
- English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977
- An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, 1982
- Harvest of the Cold Months, 1994