Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz

Erudite and witty cookery writer

Elisabeth Lambert (Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz), writer: born Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex 17 June 1915; married; died New York 27 October 2003.

Open almost any of the cookery titles written by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz and you will hear the voice of the woman herself - charmingly authoritative, erudite and witty, and definitely quirky.

For example, she begins her 1969 magnum opus, The Book of Latin American Cooking, by writing, "I first became interested in Latin American food when I was at school for some time in Jamaica." This reflects her teasing love of paradox rather than weak geography. She was, in fact, particularly well-travelled and exquisitely careful about facts - the gastronomic bridge across the Caribbean Sea was the flavour of the fiery scotch bonnet chilli.

At recess at school, I was allowed to buy a little meat pie costing a quatee, the local name for one and half pence, from an elderly black lady who brought a cloth-covered wicker basket of them to school daily. They had a special flavour that captivated me. I was too young to know how to track it down, but the memory of it stayed with me.

Much later she learned it was the habañero chile, Capsicum chinese, var. habañero, the hottest native to North America, used extensively in South America, and probably wrongly named after Havana, Cuba.

Lambert Ortiz was the undisputed English-language expert on the "enormous cuisine that stretches from the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) to the Antarctic," and her authority on the larger subject of the food and cooking of Mexico is rivalled only by that of her fellow Englishwoman Diana Kennedy. In her younger and middle years, Lambert Ortiz was an enormously successful journalist, writing for Gourmet, the Condé Nast publication that has always been the world's most important food magazine since it began in the 1940s. She was also employed as a consultant on the monumental Time-Life Foods of the World series. In addition, she wrote a verse play broadcast by the BBC, a thriller, The Sleeping House Party (1951), and several volumes of poetry.

Born in 1915 at Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, Elisabeth Lambert was the middle child of three sisters. Her father was a marine salvage engineer who moved the family to Jamaica was Elisabeth was eight - her 1954 Father Couldn't Juggle is a novelised account of their time in the West Indies. Eventually her father moved his business to Australia, where Elisabeth got a job on a Sydney newspaper as a court reporter. She soon added the theatre and film critics' jobs to her portfolio, and published three books of poetry.

Her first marriage was to Patrick, an artist who became a pilot, and was killed in the Battle of Britain. In 1949 she returned to London, where she worked as a journalist for a few years, before accepting a job in New York as a writer for the fledgling United Nations. There she met and married (she once told someone that this was her third marriage) in the early 1960s César Ortiz Tinoco, a Mexican diplomat then posted to the UN.

César was an elegant, urbane, civilised man, who shared his wife's love of English literature and poetry, and especially good food and good and plentiful drink. He started her on the career as a food and cookery writer for which she was temperamentally so well suited: "When I first married and we were still in New York," she wrote in 1997,

César told me about Mexico's extraordinary contribution to the world's cultivated food. Chocolate, vanilla, corn (maize), chillies (sweet, pungent and hot), tomatoes, avocados, green beans, the dried beans like kidney beans, pumpkin and the summer squash. . . papayas (pawpaws), turkeys and others.

A scholarly turn of mind permeated even her popular journalism; she was didactic in the best, most generous sense - she had a passion for sharing (sometimes hard-won) knowledge.

When César was transferred to the UN Information Centre in Mexico City, she said,

I was handicapped by not knowing Spanish and by stubbornly clinging to some of my cultural habits. I took some Spanish lessons. . . The maid tried to help but she spoke no English. So I took to the markets where the women put up with my beginning Spanish and taught me how to make some of the things I had eaten in other people's houses and restaurants.

Her Spanish became "rapid, fluent and grammatically a terror," as the market stallholders taught her the basics of Mexican cooking, and her mother-in-law taught her food customs. Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz was pleased with her progress, though Mexican cooks' relaxed attitude to quantities made it difficult to collect recipes. "In time," she said," you know what the right amount is. The Mexicans call it having a buen mano, a good hand."

As they travelled in Mexico, she learned that the cuisine was strongly regional, and almost as diversified as French regional cooking. And like France, Mexico has an haute cuisine. From reading history by Spanish writers, she discovered "descriptions of the markets, the kitchen, the banquet hall, the food of the ordinary people, of soldiers, nobles and the Emperor himself." César directed her reading so that she learned about the pre-Columbian diet, and that "the Mexican kitchen of today rests very solidly on its Aztec and Mayan foundations."

As she became accepted by the large Ortiz clan ("General Ortiz welcomed me into the family and said there was a slab awaiting me in the family mausoleum in Chihuahua City, where the first and very famous General Ortiz is buried"), she acquired the recipes and culinary know-how of the extended family and their cooks.

Her friend, the celebrated editor José Wilson, asked her to contribute some Mexican recipes to the New York House and Garden, the first time it had occurred to her to turn her hand to professional cookery writing. Subsequently, James Beard, one of the two most powerful men in the American food world (who considered himself Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz's mentor - a relationship he bore to anyone whose career he thought might do him credit), told her to write an entire book about Mexican food. Craig Claiborne, the other power, wrote about her (from similar motives) in his column in the New York Times, with the result that she got a contract for the book before she had finished it. Published in 1967, The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking won an important American award, and the Gourmet and Time-Life connections followed.

"César," she wrote, then "made it possible for me to write about the whole kitchen of Latin America, and the Caribbean, using our UN holidays." In 1969 she published the first of several editions of The Book of Latin American Cooking. In 1973 The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking was launched. In the mid-1970s the UN sent César to the Middle East and Asia, and they made their home in Bangkok, where Lizzie kept her hand in by writing for the local English-language newspaper, while she worked on a book on Japanese food.

In 1980 César retired, and they moved to London, settling in a small house in Ealing, where César helped Elisabeth with her now formidable research (she was especially interested in the impact of new archaeological findings on the history of agriculture in the Americas) and wrote articles for the Mexican press. She wrote several more food and cookery books, and revised her three principal books.

Elisabeth was crushed with grief when César died in 1992, and she was cursed with the fate that seems to befall every food writer as they get older and magazine and newspaper editors get younger - neglect at a time when the writer, with a lifetime's experience to be drawn on, has most to offer. Arthritic and lonely, she moved to New York to be near one of her sisters, Joyce, who herself died shortly after the move.

It is hard to imagine Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz without seeing her wide grin and the amused gleam in her eye as she said something self-deprecating, or just a little teasingly ridiculous about her beloved César - in her intrinsically humorous mid-Atlantic accent.

Paul Levy

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