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Cookbook Review: At Elizabeth David's Table Is Where You Want To Be Tonight

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Tue, May 24, 2011 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge elizabeth_david.jpg
If your vision of a culinary history cookbook is something dusty, stodgy and covered in unappetizing yellow paper stains, you need a copy of the recently released American version of At Elizabeth David's Table.

The compendium of recipes and prose from arguably the best food writer of the 20th century was originally printed in the U.K. (and compiled by Jill Norman). In it, you will find the notoriously testy British culinary great's best, and notably still very relevant, recipes (fresh green pea soup, pork loin baked with white wine and oranges, raspberry-red currant mousse) alongside a hefty dose of her fantastically witty prose. Translation: Hilariously spot-on sarcasm.

What was that saying? Right. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Turn the page for more.

Consider this excerpt from a 1977 article, in which David describes her own home Kitchen Nightmares:

I recoil from colored tiles and beflowered surfaces and I don't want a lot of things colored avocado and tangerine. I'll just settle for the avocados and tangerines in a bowl on the dresser... And too much equipment is if anything worse than too little. I don't a bit covet the exotic gear dangling from hooks, the riot of clanking ironmongery, the armories of knives, or the serried rank of sauté pans and all other carefully chosen symbols of culinary activity I see in so many photographs of chic kitchens. Psueds corners, I'm afraid, many of them.

The book's layout is a pretty brilliant storytelling tool. Printed between each chapter (sorted in the basic Starters/Vegetables/Meat categories) is an article by David that sheds light on such curiosities as why baking your own sandwich loaves in England circa 1968 was such a necessity, albeit perhaps a depressing one. "I find it comical as well as shameful that in this day and age anybody should be forced into so archaic an activity [as bread baking]," says David in an article for the British magazine Queen, which was eventually bought by and incorporated into Harper's Bazaar, that bemoans the state of commercial British loaves. "No Frenchwoman, at least no French townswoman, would dream of baking her own bread."

click to enlarge The Notoriously Opinionated Cook - PENGUIN
  • Penguin
  • The Notoriously Opinionated Cook
It soon becomes clear that quality, or actually lack thereof, is what drove David along a culinary-inspired path. When you can't get a good French baguette at home - or risotto alla Milanese (saffron-infused risotto as found in Milan), British summer pudding, or simple Spanish gazpacho for that matter - you have to make your own. And so after trips to France and Italy, with work-related stays in Egypt and Greece during World War II, David returned home to London and sorted through her mind's log of crispy Greek spanakopittá and a creamy French gratin dauphinois (baked potatoes and cream). For decades, we have enjoyed the result.

And yet, as we are told in the Introduction, when David's first cookbook, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) was published "the ingredients of the Mediterranean lands - olive oil, saffron, garlic, basil, eggplants, figs, pistachio nuts - were hardly to be found in central London, and readers had to rely on memory or imagination to savor Elizabeth's recipes." Today, of course, we can make that poulet a l'estragon (tarragon-roasted chicken), spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), and fistuqia (a Middle Eastern fava bean and yogurt dish) with ease. Or should we still be buzzing with Royal Wedding curiosity, those Staffordshire oatcakes (p. 359; essentially thin pancakes made with ground oatmeal).

Somehow, in David's pen marks these simple international recipes take on a whole new flavor. Perhaps it is simply a matter of spending too much time in a modern kitchen. And hearing the persistent complaints about how we have so little time to cook when we are also ridiculously fortunate have nearly every ingredient we could want within farmers market reach -- something David would no doubt be cautiously thrilled to see.

Or maybe, just maybe, the re-release of David's recipes at this very moment in our schizophrenic recipe culture of blogs and tweets and Facebook swaps (not to mention media websites like Epicurious.com boasting hundreds of readers' comments grievances on a single recipe) will serve as a reminder that sometimes -- right now! -- maybe we could all just shut up and cook a simple chicken pot roast with fennel and ham (p. 266). And sit down. And eat. And enjoy.

For some reason, we have a feeling that Elizabeth David would agree.

-- Find more by Jenn Garbee at twitter.com/eathistory and on www.eathistory.com.

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