Bohemian with a pepper grinder

By Ben Rogers
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The Independent Culture

Writing at the Kitchen Table by Artemis Cooper (Michael Joseph £20)

Writing at the Kitchen Table by Artemis Cooper (Michael Joseph £20)

Elizabeth David lived an eventful life. Born into English landed nobility, she escaped to London early in the 1930s, where she worked as a stage manager and actress, taking time off to explore the Continent, perfect her French and improve her German. A heavy drinker, she was moderately promiscuous, unhappy, extravagant and adventurous: the bohemian of the family. In August 1939 she and her lover, Charles Gibson-Cowan, a "lower-class" Jewish novelist, set off on a yacht for Greece. Trapped in Antibes by the war, she came under spell of the elderly Epicurean travel writer Norman Douglas, perhaps the single most important influence on her life. Interned in Italy, she and Gibson-Cowan settled in Greece, before escaping to Egypt, where she set up a reference library for the Ministry of Information. Here she discovered her gift for scholarship.

After a short sojourn in India, she returned to London with a new husband, a kind but weak officer of the Indian Army, Tony David. The marriage failed just as Elizabeth's writing career took off. Fame, a shop selling kitchen equipment, a long, frustrating, partially unrequited love affair, quarrels and illness and still greater fame followed. She was a beautiful, painstaking writer and worked exceptionally hard at her books and articles, developing in the process a profound knowledge of the history of food. Her recipes were authentic and often demanding without being snobbish. Her taste was simply impeccable.

Yet for all of the colour and variation, the Elizabeth David story seems fairly simple. It has two parts. First there is an unhappy childhood. Her father, a ferociously right-wing Conservative MP, died early, leaving his four daughters in the hands of their mother, a remote, unfeeling woman. Maternal neglect left its legacy: Elizabeth never wanted children and made for a touchy, difficult friend and resentful colleague. "All other serious attachments I ever had came to grief because I could not stand being suffocated with love," as she once wrote to the man she loved most.

Second there is her passion for food, to which she transposed many of the longings that that unhappy childhood had fostered. Like a lot of creative people - but perhaps especially chefs - she was an obsessive, a monomaniac, who invested all her emotions and hopes in her art. The food of the Mediterranean, in particular, offered her an ideal world, a million miles from the pains and humiliations of home. It is true that David turned in the last part of her life, in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen and English Bread and Yeast Cookery, to English food, but as Cooper observes, "She never found a lyrical voice to describe England ... in the way that she described France and Italy". The South represented to her, as it did for Matisse or indeed Norman Douglas, not just light, warmth and fragrance but something higher still.

Cooper, who never knew David, writes easily. She ably evokes the misery of Elizabeth's childhood but is particularly good on her relationship to the other sex. She sees a type beneath the men that attracted her - ebullient, "not-quite-our-class" bohemians, who, Cooper speculates, reminded her of her father - and conveys the hopes and disappointments that her relationships involved.

As in a poor recipe, however, the proportions in this book are not quite right. Cooper lingers at length on David's later years, chronicling inconsequential friendships and more than amply illustrating both her capacity for selfishness and her sadness. (It is ironic that David, the apostle of the South, should have spend the last half of her life living in the bottom half of a narrow, dark Chelsea house.) We hear a little too much, in particular, about Elizabeth David's shop, surely one of her least interesting creations, and her quarrels with her business partners. The effect is rather diminishing.

At the same time, Cooper neglects other parts of her subject's life. She has absolutely nothing to say about her politics - who did she vote for? - and while we are assured, as is obvious from her books, that she was a great reader, we are given no clue as to what she read. Most of all, we don't get anything like enough appreciation of David's writing or relationship to food. Cooper is good at this when she does it, vividly describing the excitement of the culinary tour of Italy that David made in 1952 which formed the basis of her Italian Food, but she has little to say about the individuality of David's taste, the shape of her historical interests or the nature of her achievement more generally. This is a pity, because the books and essays David left behind are peerless.