Monday, September 04, 2006

Reading. David.

It was Gourmet magazine which brought me to Laurie Colwin, and it was Colwin who introduced me to Elizabeth David. Colwin was always writing about other writers who she said were never as well-known in America as they should have been. David is virtually unknown here, but I have loved her writing ever since I discovered it several years ago. I must confess I have only tried a few of her recipes, but it is her writing that I love, her dry wit and offhand way with words, her criticism of the stodgy English food of post-war Britain. To compare her to M. F. K. Fisher would diminish the individualism of either writer, although they are of the same time and they both had a profound effect on their respective countries.

While I have a few of Elizabeth David's cookbooks, it is her collection of essays, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (and to a lesser extent, Is There a Nutmeg in the House?) to which I return time and time again. I had read Fisher and David together when I was in college and for some reason I felt more at home with the latter. There is something relaxed about her writing, something unpretentious and characteristically English in a way I'm not sure how to define. There was an assurance and a sense of amusement; lightness, but not lightweight. She had spent time in Egypt during the war years, and in the Mediterranean, and the bleakness that was English cuisine in the post-war years made those wartime sojourns in other places bountiful in comparison.

What I remember most clearly is her criticism of ersatz food, of imitations of classic French or Italian foods made with shoddy ingredients and fake food - a so-called quiche made with a pre-fabricated pie shell filled with evaporated milk and synthetic cheese, or pizza that was nothing more than a piece of bread slathered in tinned tomato sauce and covered with that same synthetic cheese. Such a cruel fate awaits the cuisine of other countries as reinvented by the English. David describes a simple meal she had in a village inn somewhere in France: a tomato salad, local black olives, home-made pâté, a gratin of courgettes (what we would call zucchini, I think) and rice, a daube of beef, and a jam made of green melons for dessert. Everything simply and perfectly cooked, the flavors clear and true. And then she describes how it would be changed for English tastes at a so-called French restaurant - one of those English-fied French restaurants so popular at the time (1961). Little unecessary bits added here and there, overwhelming flavors obscuring the true nature of the dish, heavy sauces over what was supposed to be a simple and unadorned beef daube.

She believed in simplicity, of the true flavor of things, of Mediterranean cooking with its seasonal produce and olive oil and fresh seafood. It is said that David brought olive oil to England; after her, pasta and aubergines (eggplants) and saffron began to appear in markets. Aside from her native England she had lived in Greece, France, Italy, India, and Egypt, and her experiences there colored her idea of what food could be, what food was, what it should be. And her writing is clear and forthright and alive. When I read her words I feel as though I am sitting at the table eating an omelette and a glass of wine. As though I need nothing else to feel completely satisfied.

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