The great English food writer Elizabeth David (1913-1992) was, when minded, a fine stylist. Flashes appear in her earliest work, especially on Mediterranean cookery.
But her subject matter to convey this artistry embraced in general food in France, southern Europe, and the Near and Far East. Its colours, scents and manner of presentation, the way she explained them, could shift her prose into another realm.
Her Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Penguin, 1970) reveals numerous passages or bon mots in this vein. By this time Britain was suffused with the spirit of the Swinging Sixties, but this colour had simply caught up to David’s older-school food psychedelia.
Generally she wrote long sentences to achieve this, to build an effect. A good example from the 1970 book is her discussion of Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, published in Madras in 1850 (author not credited).
She admired it especially for its section on Eastern recipes, “mostly of Moslem origin… [which] I have never seen in any other book, in or out of print…”.
The dishes have wild and beautiful names like “Ash Lingra Jagurath”, and “Zarebrian Mahee Baykhar” and “Korekah Kubah”. A typical list of ingredients, given in Bombay weights and measures, reads ‘mutton, wheat flour, ghee, Kabellie henah, white chennah, or dhall, chukundar, carrots, paluk, native greens, saffron, onions, sugar, green ginger, cloves, cardamoms, capsicums, cinnamon, lime juice, salt’.
She was taken especially by the Eastern method of roasting in a closed vessel, where butter, onion and other flavours penetrate the food and are not allowed to escape during the cooking process.
On the opposite page where this account appears, she turned to her own era, to how English supermarkets were adopting self-service with check out at registers near the entrance. Her first experience of such shopping involved a wait of ten minutes to pay, as the customer ahead of her had her items checked “orange by orange, almost sprout by sprout”.
David also noted that the store, on the King’s Road in Chelsea, featured “serried ranks of spit-revolving chickens”. This was then new on the British scene, but a sight long familiar in the North American supermarket, the evident model for her King’s Road version.
She found the spectacle of cooking birds in this fashion, and resultant odours, highly disagreeable (“terrible smell of dirty basting fat”). On the plus side, she was heartened by a stall in the store “devoted to the display of spices”.
This too was new in Britain then, selling branded cans or packets of spices in what we call now a spice rack or display. She liked this development and bought some, all of course sealed but with contents at least visible through a “transparent window”.
Once home she pounded away at ginger and cumin, coriander and garlic, and:
…it wasn’t long before the clean wholesome smells of an ancient Levantine bazaar were edging away the fumes of London’s brandest-new supermarket.
Note how she turns around a stereotypical image of the Eastern market then – disorganized, odoriferous, maybe dirty – to level the charge on her own doorstep.
For most Britons then, despite the enforced travels of part of the population around the world due to two world, and other, wars, and despite the colonial legacy then in twilight, such Eastern spices and foods were largely still a mystery.
This was of course before international jet travel became more available to the populace, and some 25 years before anyone heard of the Internet. Immigration was rising but still relatively minimal back then.
Today, the foods she described are available routinely on many high streets or in town districts. They can be created at home with benefit of the most authentic spices and herbs sold in bulk at markets. I had a chance to observe this on my last visit to London a couple of years ago, at Shepherd’s Bush Market.
But this is now. Elizabeth David was then. Still we remember her artistry and questing spirit to understand the foods of distant places, to introduce them to a bemused but interested domestic readership.
She predicted in her way what we call world cuisine today, and played her role in countering the excesses of the industrialized food system although never with the facile naivety that too often characterises food media in 2021.
The image below, attribution not known, was sourced from David’s (excellent, well-referenced) Wikipedia entry.
See our Part II which concludes this look.