Elizabeth David

The cookery writer who revolutionised British cooking in the 1950s and now risks being posthumously cancelled for her mentor’s behaviour
Elizabeth David pictured in 1969. PICTURE KITCHEN / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

How does a culinary icon earn a literary reputation? Certainly not through writing cookbooks. In what was once the land of meatloaf and spam fritters, attitudes to what’s for dinner may have changed since 1950, the date of first publication of Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food, but good writing is not the reason that cookbooks sell by the million.

Mrs David earned herself literary respectability not because she wrote about cooking, but in spite of her choice of subject matter. Though there wasn’t much choice for a well-bred young woman without the support of a husband or fortune of her own (Bloomsbury women – you had it easy), and a pressing need, in post-war Britain, to earn a living.

“A writer, eh?”
Sometimes, when seated formally at dinner, I’ve been asked by men of substance what, if anything, I do for a living.
“I’m a writer.”
“Should I have heard of you?”
“Not unless you read about cooking.”
“Ah. My wife adores Ottolenghi.”

Of course she does. Big shiny pics, gorgeous recipes, why wouldn’t you? Before that it was Delia and Nigella. Even earlier, Constance Spry and Leith’s Cookery Bible. Nothing literary there to frighten the horses – all are heavyweight manuals designed to deliver the goods.

With Elizabeth David, it’s never about the goods, it’s the style. She doesn’t do ingredient lists or timings. Her recipes are like poems. They sing. Mediterranean Food is a young girl of a book, slender and lighthearted. Single-paragraph recipes, minimal instruction, exotic ingredients, sunshine on every page. Just what we needed, the young women of my generation, war babies without fathers who came of age in the 1960s, who grew up in a world we had to invent for ourselves.

A first edition of the 1951 book that launched her culinary writing career

And we did. As did the young Elizabeth Gwynn twenty years earlier, when she kicked over the traces in 1939 by running away to sea with an unsuitable married man. A bold move for a twenty-something, would-be actress, second daughter of an aristocratic family, endowed with just enough money to buy a sailboat and make it seaworthy. The decision to sail across the Mediterranean to the Greek islands led to a stop-off in Antibes. Here she met the man she credits as her literary mentor, septuagenarian man of letters and self-confessed lover of boys, Norman Douglas.

While the age gap might suggest a need for a father figure, Elizabeth would certainly have known of the “funny little habits” attributed to the author of South Wind and Old Calabria, because everyone else did. No one turned a hair in the 1930s when, meeting friends in cafes, Douglas was accompanied by a revolving cast of young boys. Occasionally the law caught up with him – homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967, though not so in Italy – and he had to absent himself for a while. But he never forfeited the admiration of a wide circle of friends that included Graham Greene, DH Lawrence, Compton Mackenzie, Sybille Bedford, Nancy Cunard, and much of the population of Capri, where he was made an honorary citizen before he died in 1952.

Douglas scribbled his own rule of life – always do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences – on the last page of Elizabeth’s copy of South Wind. Dated May 11, 1940, the inscription rates a mention by the recipient in an article for Gourmet magazine in 1969.

So far, so good – until now. What was skipped over in the 1930s is a problem in the 2020s. American culinary historian Laura Shapiro, in a paper published in the proceedings of The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery in 2021, explains in no uncertain terms that Mrs David’s adored friend and literary mentor was a notorious pederast who paid impoverished Italian mamas to hand over custody of their little boys. Bad behaviour, indeed.

But is it proper – or even appropriate – to defenestrate a writer (actor, artist, musician) by association? Or can the work be allowed to continue to speak for itself. The V&A, I notice, has quietly squirrelled away a glorious female torso by Eric Gill – outed for similarly unacceptable behaviour within the family circle – that had hitherto earned pride of place in the sculpture hall.

Mrs David’s adored friend and literary mentor was a notorious pederast

Meanwhile, with two impeccably-researched biographies (officially, Artemis Cooper; unofficially, Lisa Chaney) and a century’s-worth of enthusiastic endorsements by such literary luminaries as WH Auden, Elizabeth David is a national treasure, as respected by the literary establishment in the UK as MFK Fisher in the US.

Elizabeth David’s legacy as an influential food writer has endured for decades, but revelations about her mentor risk tarnishing her image. PICTURE KITCHEN / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Which begs the question, was the influence of Norman Douglas of such paramount importance to the development of Elizabeth David’s career that she deliberately overlooked what was out there in full sight? Did the author of Venus in the Kitchen – an unserious compendium in which the recipes are secondary – teach his eager pupil to keep her personal life under wraps? Perhaps the key lies in the convention at that time for everyone to keep their private life quiet. “From his friends,” Elizabeth writes in Wine and Food in 1964, “Norman expected the same respect for privacy as he had for theirs, the same rejection of idle questioning, meddling gossip and rattling chatter.”

Her life-long reticence made interviews rare, as I well remember from the 1980s, when I was a customer in my heroine’s shop in Pimlico. Encounters – commercial rather than social – were somewhat fraught, since I was in the habit of dropping in after pick-up from Pimlico Comprehensive with a couple of undisciplined schoolchildren in tow. I imagine the general impression of irresponsibility (true) was not helped by my full-length skirt, Tibetan moon boots and velvet hat with feather. Nevertheless, I always knew exactly what I wanted –china draining moulds for coeurs à la crème or a round-bellied pot for the cassoulet I’d learned to cook during a school year in Castelnaudary – and Mrs David always stocked it.

This emboldened me to hope, after my own first book European Peasant Cookery had just been published to enthusiastic reviews, including from Sybille Bedford, that I might secure an interview with the literary giant for my column in a mass-circulation lifestyle magazine. In a bid to avoid outright refusal I took advice from Alan Davidson, publisher of the house magazine of the culinary cognoscenti, Petits Propos Culinaires, who’d welcomed me into the fold and given me the freedom of his library.

“Don’t bother,” counselled Alan, “it’s all in the introductions to her books.” Up to a point. More revealing are the essays written for magazines whose editors had the good sense to employ a “difficult” writer. From 1949, Anne Scott-James published Elizabeth regularly in Harper’s Bazaar, negotiating demands that not a word be altered or omitted. Ernestine Carter of the Sunday Times was not one of her favourite editors, but she settled happily among the eccentric intellectuals at The Spectator.

A blue plaque is reserved for the most renowned. Even if David gets cancelled, it is unlikely to be taken down. MICK SINCLAIR / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Biographical detail in Lisa Chaney’s unauthorised biography was provided by Elizabeth’s last surviving sister, Priscilla Longland, who as the eldest of four daughters had inherited the family mansion, Wootton Hall in Sussex. She was a neighbour of my mother-in-law, so as a weekend visitor I sometimes dropped by the Hall to deliver vegetables from her garden. Mrs Longland hadn’t been well provided for in widowhood and was known among local tradesmen for her reluctance to pay bills; she solved this problem in the time-honoured fashion among the gentry: by moving tradesfolk and depending on friends.

Elizabeth’s success as a food writer remained a mystery to her elder sister. “Lord knows where they got the idea my sister could cook,” Priscilla told me. “In our day, you didn’t.” Lunch at the Hall was inadvisable: by the time I arrived in 1988, the quince paste – Elizabeth’s first published recipe and a family favourite with cheese – was always topped with a furry green hat of mould.

But my generation of Swinging Sixties dolly birds, with our Mary Quant minis and taste for intellectual anarchy, has reason to be grateful to the author of Mediterranean Food. It’s thanks to Mrs David we spent that rumbustious decade reeking of garlic and picking rosemary shards out of our gums, while – unlike our parents – we entertained each other around the kitchen table, plotting against the status quo.

Could French Provincial Cooking come with a trigger warning?

In both biographies, a few elderly skeletons tiptoe out of the cupboard. Grandpa was a bit of a tyrant, “Mummie” a bit of a bolter, Father a bit of a bounder, and the family had acquired what Elizabeth herself – outraging modern sensibilities again – called a touch of the tarbrush, because great-grandmother was a Sumatran rhanee. Yet in several hundred pages’ of meticulous biographical research including regular mention of Norman Douglas as the subject’s guiding star, there’s just the merest hint of mildly unacceptable behaviour by a self-admitted, unashamedly promiscuous paedophile.

Academic rumblings are hard to silence once they pop out of the box, however. Is the author of Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen about to get deplatformed by association? Could French Provincial Cooking come with a trigger warning? What price reputation? Mrs David won’t be the first – or last – literary icon to find herself cancelled.

Elisabeth Luard has been writing about life, liberty and cookery in books, magazines and newspapers for fifty years. Her work as a copy-typist was featured in Issues 7-15 (or thereabouts) of Private Eye  

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