An important figure in the field of food writing is Lieut.-Col. Nathaniel Newnham-Davis. He was active from the latter 1800s until the First World War. He was an acknowledged influence on Elizabeth David, the greatest food writer of the post-WW II era, in my opinion, or perhaps any era.
A restaurant reviewer and author of books on food and travel, he was a progenitor of today’s Rays, Olivers, Ramsays, etc. That he could write circles around all of them is perhaps less relevant today given how culinary information is primarily conveyed by images and in short-form bits on social media.
At the same time, his ability with the pen, which disclosed a mild humour, great knowledge and an affable spirit, makes the work attractive to this day.
The soldier-writer had joined an elite infantry regiment after his education. Even then he was a gastronome-in-training, during the long years in garrison in India and elsewhere.
Upon retirement at only 40 he alighted in London as a (never-married) man-about-town, blasé he called himself with some exaggeration, and opened a cookery school for the aspirational classes.
He wrote novels and plays as well, and the books for stage and ballet productions. He knew his way around literary and bohemian London while bringing an upper-crust, post-Harrow sensibility to it all. I don’t know if he knew Oscar Wilde or William Morris, say, but such associations would have been natural for him.
His first book published at the turn of the century and later issued in further editions reviewed London-area restaurants of many different types.
This essay reviewed a Jewish restaurant, Goldstein’s. It is the type of restaurant I discussed earlier that once was common in western cities, offering home-style cooking vs. the delicatessen or bagel genre that prevail today. Extracts of the menu may be seen (via Hathitrust) here, and some of the Colonel’s opinions are shown above.
He was impressed with the meal almost to a dish. I was struck, too, by the respectful tone exhibited towards Jewish customs and rites. Too often in 19th-century writing and well into the 20th century for that matter, general writers (American, English, European, etc.) revealed prejudice in regard to Jews, hard-edged in some cases.
Often such writers, or others of their ilk, were equally derisive of people of African or other non-Anglo-Saxon background. The Irish, too, came in for their share of abuse on these accounts.
Newnham-Davis appeared free from such animus. True, the meal was hosted but that doesn’t fully account for the warm tone; I think he was just like that. Perhaps his mixing artistic and bohemian circles inclined him to a greater tolerance than the average writer, then.
Eliza Acton was another Victorian food writer of great influence on Elizabeth David. Writing earlier than Newnham-Davis, she showed a similar toleration and interest in Jewish cookery and ritual customs. It seems unlikely Newnham-Davis was unfamiliar with her work.
The Colonel’s essay on the Cheshire Cheese tavern is good, too, in the same volume. He drank beer there – a bitter ale – but his account is mostly of the atmosphere, food, and people he encountered.
Newnham-Davis is much more than a curio: he forms a direct link to our modern food culture. Academic food studies is aware of his importance, as testified for example by Andrea Broomfield’s Soldier of the Fork published in Gastronomica a few years ago, see here.*
Broomfield focuses on the Colonel’s conscious, successful effort to make eating out an easy experience for the rising classes in Britain. Those who previously relied on hired cooks and other domestic staff were eating out more, and the Colonel guided them through the ritual language of menus and wine lists.
Most dishes in Goldstein’s menu are familiar to anyone who knows Jewish food of European (Ashkenazi) origin. He was also served from its deli kitchen, including something that appears similar to Montreal smoked meat or New York pastrami.
The Colonel protested against the plenty offered him – too much for one dinner, he said. But he had gotten through similar horns of plenty – multiple courses and wines – in the town’s others restaurants; such was the style of Edwardian eating, then. I suspect he enjoyed it, withal.
Did a food critic’s enforced regimen, particularly of that era, contribute to a relatively early demise? It’s hard to say. He was only in his mid-60s on expiry, when working at his first job again, the Army, tending to German POWs in a British camp.
*See in the comments below where I link to a pdf of Prof. Broomfield’s full article, available on her website.