Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David

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9780060198282: Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David's reputation as one of the most influential food writers of the twentieth century rests primarily on her first five books. Mediterranean Food appeared in 1949 when England was still on wartime rations. Before long every self-respecting cook had a copy of it in the kitchen; between 1955 and 1985, more than a million copies of her book were sold. Elizabeth's aim was to bring flavor of these blessed lands of sun and sea and olive trees" into English homes, and her books transformed a generation of cooks by demystifying unfamiliar ingredients like garlic, red peppers and olive oil that have since become everyday cooking staples.

Born in 1913 to a wealthy, well-connected family, Elizabeth Gwynne was privately educated until the age of sixteen, when she was sent to France to learn the language and study at the Sorbonne. After being "finished" in Paris and Munich, she returned to London and worked briefly as an actress, but left again to explore Europe. At the age of twenty-six, she and her married lover, Charles Gibson-Cowan, set-off on a boat bound for Greece. Trapped in Antibes by the war, Elizabeth came under the spell of Norman Douglas, one of the most important influences in her life. She and Charles set sail again just as Italy entered the war, only to find themselves interned in Messina, accused of espionage. Eventually they reached Athens. They spent the winter in 1940-41 on a Greek Island, where Elizabeth first started to cook Mediterranean food.

The German invasion of the Balkans forced them to join refugees fleeing to Egypt. In the raffish Fortunes of War of Alexandria and Cairo, Elizabeth flourished and came to know writers such as Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor. She also met Tony David, an officer in the Indian army. He proposed to her by letter from Italy and, to the astonishment of her friends, she accepted. After the war and a few months in India, Elizabeth returned to gray rationed England.

Exasperated by the bleakness of English food, she put pen to paper and wrote Mediterranean Food, a book that caught the imagination of a generation was soon followed by French Country Cooking, Italian Food, French Provincial Cooking, and many other titles. In the course of the next decade, the happiest of her life, Elizabeth's books and articles inspired a cookery revolution.

Working from an extensive archive of personal papers, Artemis Cooper reveals the powerful tensions between Elizabeth David's private world and the image of the successful woman she presented to her public. It is a story that even some of her closest friends never knew.

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Review:

Although Elizabeth David was the very opposite of a recluse, she was famously reluctant to divulge information about herself to her readers, claiming that everything that needed to be said could be found in her books. In light of Artemis Cooper's Writing at the Kitchen Table, this assertion looks more doubtful than ever: the more that is revealed about David, the more interesting she becomes. Cooper is the "authorized" biographer, writing with access to a mass of personal papers, but this is no hagiography. Mrs. David, 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-centeredness 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 she had a really dirty laugh--more of a cackle, it appears.

The story is well told: the patrician background she flouted (but not too much); the flight from England, grayness, 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 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 Cooper does not. In a sense, David was right. The best of her is in the writing--namely, in her precise, attentive, sensual appreciation of food and cooking. She was above all an exquisitely skillful cook, whose influence, though mostly indirect, has been incalculable. It's all the more moving, then, to learn 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

About the Author:

Artemis Cooper is the author of Cairo in the War 1939-1945 and Paris after the Liberation (which she cowrote with her husband, Antony Beevor). They have two children and live in London.

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