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Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David

Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David

by Artemis Cooper

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Elizabeth David's reputation as one of the most influential food writers of the twentieth century rests primarily on her first five books. Mediterranean Food appeared in 1949 when England was still on wartime rations. Before long every self-respecting cook had a copy of it in the kitchen; between 1955 and 1985, more than a million copies of her book were


Elizabeth David's reputation as one of the most influential food writers of the twentieth century rests primarily on her first five books. Mediterranean Food appeared in 1949 when England was still on wartime rations. Before long every self-respecting cook had a copy of it in the kitchen; between 1955 and 1985, more than a million copies of her book were sold. Elizabeth's aim was to bring flavor of these blessed lands of sun and sea and olive trees" into English homes, and her books transformed a generation of cooks by demystifying unfamiliar ingredients like garlic, red peppers and olive oil that have since become everyday cooking staples.

Born in 1913 to a wealthy, well-connected family, Elizabeth Gwynne was privately educated until the age of sixteen, when she was sent to France to learn the language and study at the Sorbonne. After being "finished" in Paris and Munich, she returned to London and worked briefly as an actress, but left again to explore Europe. At the age of twenty-six, she and her married lover, Charles Gibson-Cowan, set-off on a boat bound for Greece. Trapped in Antibes by the war, Elizabeth came under the spell of Norman Douglas, one of the most important influences in her life. She and Charles set sail again just as Italy entered the war, only to find themselves interned in Messina, accused of espionage. Eventually they reached Athens. They spent the winter in 1940-41 on a Greek Island, where Elizabeth first started to cook Mediterranean food.

The German invasion of the Balkans forced them to join refugees fleeing to Egypt. In the raffish Fortunes of War of Alexandria and Cairo, Elizabeth flourished and came to know writers such as Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor. She also met Tony David, an officer in the Indian army. He proposed to her by letter from Italy and, to the astonishment of her friends, she accepted. After the war and a few months in India, Elizabeth returned to gray rationed England.

Exasperated by the bleakness of English food, she put pen to paper and wrote Mediterranean Food, a book that caught the imagination of a generation was soon followed by French Country Cooking, Italian Food, French Provincial Cooking, and many other titles. In the course of the next decade, the happiest of her life, Elizabeth's books and articles inspired a cookery revolution.

Working from an extensive archive of personal papers, Artemis Cooper reveals the powerful tensions between Elizabeth David's private world and the image of the successful woman she presented to her public. It is a story that even some of her closest friends never knew.

Editorial Reviews

Sunday Times (London)
At last we have this vivid portrait of Elizabeth David by Artemis Cooper, who not only writes like an angel, but has done her research with great skill an obvious enjoyment.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Elizabeth David's vibrant writing and elegant recipes have earned the respect of famous gourmets like Alice Waters and Julia Child, but acolytes of the doyenne of cookbook writers may be disappointed by the dry prose of this authorized biography. David earned her reputation in the 1950s when, with books such as Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking, she brought strong and simple flavors to the austere palates of postwar England. David was perhaps the first cookbook writer not to specialize in haute European cuisine, but rather to aspire to bring the flavors of the farmhouse to home tables. Although her books were and continue to be recognized as well organized and thorough, David's personal life was something of a shambles, with love affairs that didn't pan out, an unhappy marriage and an odd relationship with her sister Felicit , who served as her typist. Cooper, however, marshals these facts into chronological order and uses a straightforward tone that strips the anecdotes to their bare bones. David's childhood, for example, is dutifully chronicled ("Like most children Elizabeth hated vegetables"), but provides little hint of her later adventures. David was an avid traveler, and her early trips to France, Italy and Greece are obviously key, but they are reduced here to lists of people she met and places she stayed. Excerpts from David's own beautifully crafted books easily show up the dull prose that surrounds them, but fans looking for the stories that did not make their way into David's own books will find only facts to savor here. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The sensual, tenacious, and exacting personality of Elizabeth David, a food writer (Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking) as influential as M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, is captured beautifully in this balanced biography. Cooper (Cairo in the War 1939-1945) begins with David's privileged English childhood, progresses through the lean and difficult years of World War II, and culminates in a success story founded on passion and the love of all things beautiful and delicious. Although it is gastronomy that will initially draw most readers, Cooper doles out David's education in food gradually--experience by experience, journey by journey--giving the reader a chance to become equally interested in her subject's dramatic personal life. (During the war, David was interned in Italy with her married lover on espionage charges and later fled to Cairo.) There are also some fascinating insights into the hierarchical world of publishing. Recommended for libraries with substantial cookery collections, this is also a compelling read on its own.--Wendy Miller, Lexington P.L., KY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
The Gywnnes

Elizabeth David's family, the Gwynnes, originally came from Wales. Their fortune was founded in the 1840s by John Gwynne, an engineer who developed the first centrifugal pump for land drainage. With the banker and tea trader Herbert Twining, he also bought up plots of land in London south of the Strand, which became prime sites for development with the completion of the Thames Embankment in 1870.

Like all the best family histories, that of the Gwynnes contains a love match, a secret, a tyrannical patriarch and an intractable will. John Gwynne married Agnes Anderson, who came from a family of well-to-do Scottish professionals. Their first son was James Eglinton Anderson Gwynne, Elizabeth's paternal grandfather, and he is the most important figure in this brief family history. Tall and domineering, with pale eyes, sandy hair and a patrician beard, James inherited his father's engineering firm. He became a good manager and an excellent businessman, but his younger brothers resented the fact that they were given no authority in the family business.

While James's position as head of the family was unquestioned, home life was ruled by their widowed mother Agnes, a strict Presbyterian. On Saturdays she would go round the house putting away every book and paper that was not a sermon, and on Sunday - a day of unmitigated gloom - most of the blinds in the house were kept down.

In 1859, the peace of Mrs Gwynne's family was shattered when James Gwynne met and fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl called May Purvis. On one level, the match looked suitable enough: he had met May when visiting his mother'scousins in Edinburgh, and the Purvises were respectable. They were merchants with connections to the Dutch traders of the East Indies. Yet what the Purvises did not like to mention was that May Purvis's Dutch great-grandfather, John Carels, had married a Sumatran 'ranee' (a term that covered every rank from chieftain's daughter to princess), by whom he had had children. The ranee's name has not survived, but she had a considerable effect on the looks of her descendants: for while May was an accomplished young woman with musical talent and a spirited disposition, her Indonesian genes had given her a fragile, exotic beauty that was distinctly un-Scottish.

Right from the start old Mrs Gwynne was suspicious of May Purvis and violently opposed the match. She probably guessed from May's appearance that there was something other than Scottish and Dutch blood in her veins, and she did everything she could to break off the engagement. She nearly succeeded, but James managed to persuade May that their union was only a matter of time if they both stood firm. They were eventually married in 1862. The wedding took place in the house of May's brother in Edinburgh, the Gwynnes and the Andersons being conspicuous by their absence. At the time of her marriage, May's health was not considered good: her doctors feared that she might develop tuberculosis, and one of James's wedding presents to his bride had been a respirator. Yet she proved strong enough to bear nine children, seven of whom survived: Reginald, Evelyn (Eva), Nevile, Violet, Rupert, Dorothy and Roland.

Rupert Gwynne, Elizabeth's father, was born in 1873. He and his brothers and sisters were brought up at Folkington (pronounced Fowington), a large property at the foot of the Sussex Downs near Eastbourne, complete with lodges and a park, a farm, a church and a rectory. The main house was a neo-Jacobean mansion with gabled roofs and tall chimneys, and in James Gwynne's day it made up in comfort what it lacked in architectural distinction. The drawing room was furnished with the most generous sofas and armchairs, every bedroom was well-stocked with books and had a blazing fire in winter, and the greenhouses were filled with heavily scented flowers and Muscat grapes. It was a curious feature of Folkington that, although James Gwynne had been one of the pioneers of electricity supply in London in 1882, his house was lit by oil lamps. There was no plumbing either; though thanks to the teams of servants and fires in every room, a morning bath was hardly a Spartan experience.

The household staff was so huge and well-run that May could claim that she had never been into her own kitchen. She was an affectionate mother, who loved music and riding and entertaining, but her life was lived in the threatening shadow of her husband. As he grew older James became more and more stern and authoritarian, and he could explode into terrifying rages. May, who could not bear rows, became psychologically his prisoner, living in perpetual fear of his temper.

The children grew up in a world of shoots and hunts and point-to-points. Rupert was admired for his reckless courage on a horse, as were Nevile and Dorothy. Violet, on the other hand, developed an exceptional talent for music, which her mother recognized. May saw to it that her daughter had the best teachers, and took her to as many concerts and recitals as she could. Violet was the darling of both her parents, who spoilt her and indulged all her caprices. She and Rupert were curiously alike: both were very dark, with deep-set eyes, and both were endowed with a dazzling and confident charm. May's youngest son Roland was born in 1882, and had the most curious upbringing. His mother doted on him in a way that was almost unhealthy, and insisted that he never leave her side. For once, James gave in to her wishes: the boy was educated entirely at home, first by governesses and then by the rector of Folkington.

Once settled at Folkington, James Gwynne set about turning himself into a country gentleman. It seemed a classic example of British

Meet the Author

Artemis Cooper is the author of Cairo in the War 1939-1945 and Paris after the Liberation (which she cowrote with her husband, Antony Beevor). They have two children and live in London.

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