Sunday 30 October 2011

Elizabeth David knew nothing about cooking...

Or so the 1951 review in the Manchester Guardian of her second book 'French Country Cooking' stated, with great disdain. "Recipe Books come in two sorts," it declaimed, "the decorative, and the practical...and Mrs David's work falls clearly in the first category". The recipes were merely copied from elsewhere, it went on, and it seemed unlikely that ED had actually ever cooked many of them; her quantities were wrong, her techniques suspect, the timings were out....and, all in all, she really didn't have a clue.

The reviewer was somebody called Lucie Marion, who happened to be French (nose out of joint, perhaps, at feeling her home turf was being invaded?), and had recently published one recipe book, and had another one on the way at the time of writing. Could it be that she didn't relish the competition? Not that her work and La David's bear much resemblance to each other - I have a copy of her second one, The Home Chef, which focuses quite a lot on the constraints of cooking 'in these difficult times' when butter was still unavailable, and fingerbowls had not yet emerged from the deep storage they'd gone into at the start of the war. Lots of household hints, as well, such as keeping a bowl of oatmeal beside the sink at all times as a drying agent for one's hands, in order to avoid them ever looking red or, perish the thought, chapped! And a fundamental premise for Ms Marion was that there should always be a quarter of an hour free at the end of preparing dinner, during which time, the hostess (or mother, or housewife) could compose herself, change her frock, and powder her nose, before presenting herself once more to her guests or family. Somehow, I can't imagine Elizabeth David ever actually using the word 'frock'.

As for what La David made of the review, history appears not to relate. Given the ironclad Grande Dame image that she presented in later years, it's hard to think she would have bothered very much with Lucie's pointed criticisms, though. She-who-must-be-obeyed in Belforte once had a run-in with ED when she had her shop in the Kings Road, many years ago, and although I can't remember exactly what the bone of contention was, I do recall that SWMBO came out of it distinctly the worst. Which says much.

And if Ms Marion's nose was out of joint at the appearance of the first of the David oeuvre, I can't imagine she got any happier over the years, as the David star rose ever higher in the firmament, until the grande dame acquired practically mythical status. And the ironic thing is, LM's original criticisms - unfortunately snippy though they were in style - were largely correct...the quantities were sometimes off, and you couldn't entirely rely on her timings...but then, I would have said that's probably true of almost any serious recipe book ever written - they're supposed to function more as a guide than as a precise technical manual. Otherwise, one might just as well be adding an egg to a Betty Crocker instant cake mix, for all the skill that might be required.

I tried to find out what happened to Lucie Marion downhill of 1951. Without much success. In all, she published three books, all much at the same time, in the early fifties, and then seems to have disappeared without a trace. Not even a Wikipedia entry - which, in this day and age, is almost eery. I can only hope she went back to France, where she wouldn't have had to watch with increasing bitterness as the 'decorative' output of Mrs David reached out to an ever larger and more appreciative audience over the years...

Tonight's Dinner:


Pintade au Chou

Petits pots a la crème au Chocolat


suej said...

I wish I could find that extra 15 minutes to powder my nose and put on my frock before guests arrive. :) But somehow I'm always fleeing in the direction of the shower, leaving Tod to do the honours, as the first car arrives.

Pomiane said...

The 'first' car, eh? What grand dinner parties you must have!

suej said...

:) :) We like just four of us when it's close friends, then we can have a really good natter. If not, then we think eight is a good number as no one individual is likely to dominate and the conversation can flow at both ends of the table.