SUZANNE HARRINGTON: How Elizabeth David changed the way we eat

This month 100 years ago, the British food writer, Elizabeth David, was born.

You might not care about food writers anymore, now that all the chefs are on the telly, swearing, shouting, licking, primping, like bulls in china shops and soap-opera coquettes. The food gets lost among all the personalities, the gloss, the retouching, the camera angles, the dizzying private lives.

But where would we be without Elizabeth David? Still eating boiled nursery food, that’s where. She’s long dead — her last meal, in 1992, was a bottle of chablis and a plate of caviar — but many of us remember what it was like before her radical cook books influenced the dinner plates of ordinary people in Britain and Ireland.

There was a time when olive oil was something you bought in a tiny bottle at the chemist, for pouring into bunged-up ears. It was definitely not for sloshing over salad leaves nor for dousing your roast vegetables. Garlic was what you left outside your bedroom door to ward off vampires, and yogurt had not been invented. As for aubergines and courgettes, well, if you could pronounce them, you were clearly metropolitan. And nobody ate peppers or avocados or olives — you could get the occasional, tinned olive drowning drunkly in a martini, but eating them for pleasure, or knowing that there were more varieties than standard, tinned green or black, was unthinkable.

Garlic and yogurt hit our house around the same time in the 1970s, although not on the same plate. The yogurt was in waxy, inverted pots and tasted unexpected. The garlic was trickier in that it required long, slow cooking or you would get a hard, overpowering hell nugget in your mouth — if a recipe said garlic cloves, that’s what went in. Unchopped, unsliced, unbelievably bad breath for days. My grandmother stared in horror at avocados — sliced in half and stuffed with prawns, as was the regulation, or made into guacamole — and placed her hands over her mouth, recoiling, eyes widening. Same with peppers. Wouldn’t touch them. Said they made her queasy just looking at them.

When David came back from her wartime Mediterranean travels to ration-book London in 1946, she was appalled to find recipes urging people to fry tinned apricot halves in bacon fat and pretend they were fried eggs. That’s quite a lot of pretending. Her writing was inspired by a longing for the food of sunnier places — olives, almonds, lemons, garlic, brightly coloured vegetables, bread that was not made of chimney soot and bicycle grease. She wrote it all down, in drab, cold 1940s London. Within a generation or two, we had absorbed it. Without her, we would still be eating turnips and salad cream.


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