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Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt & Aromatics in the English Kitchen: A reappraisal four decades on.

A Special Holiday Re-print From Our Archive

1. The measure of herb, spice and a little salt.

By the time Elizabeth David published Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen during 1970, she had been lionized in Britain for three decades. One biographer describes her as “undoubtedly the greatest English writer on food” of the 1900s, and no less a stickler than Auberon Waugh maintained that “she... brought about a greater change in English life than any other woman this [twentieth] century.” (Chaney xxi) David’s first two books, on Mediterranean and then French provincial cooking, both became bestsellers. She had written articles on English food too, including the landmark “English Potted Meats and Fish Pastes” from 1965 (republished by David herself as a pamphlet in 1968), but Spices, Salt and Aromatics was her first book to address the subject. English Bread & Yeast Cookery followed it seven years later.

David got her customarily rapturous notices; A.S. Byatt and other luminaries wrote fulsome reviews. Artemis Cooper’s ‘official’ biography describes Spices, Salt and Aromatics as “this remarkably elegant book” (Cooper 259); Myrtle Allen wrote that it ‘finally won her over’ to English food. David remains a revered, not to say iconic, figure in gastropolitan Britain. Invocation of her name there ratifies any recipe or culinary judgment, and affixing it to any product has much the same effect as adding ‘Nantucket’ to something in the United States: You can flog it at a premium.

As the flyleaf to the 2000 reprint notes, however, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen remains the “least well known of her books,” although, true to form, used copies tend to be disproportionately expensive. This comparative obscurity is a bit of a mystery and is not explained by the English subject matter alone; the heftier English Bread and Yeast Cookery is not nearly so unknown.

On the fortieth anniversary of its publication, Spices, Salt and Aromatics therefore deserves another look. The book has two components. David wrote the first four chapters, ‘Spices and Condiments,’ ‘Aromatic Herbs, Dried or Fresh,’ ‘More Flavourings’ and ‘Measurements and Temperatures’ specifically for the book, although elements of the first two chapters previously had appeared as a pamphlet entitled "Dried Herbs, Aromatics and Condiments" that David published in 1967.

David is in her element; the prose sings, and the song is paean to the exotica (not to say erotica) that she craved. Even her treatment of a subject ordinarily as prosaic as measurements (a subject at some remove from spices and the like) feels fresh forty years later. Here is an example: In her discussion of apparently approximate amounts in nineteenth-century books and manuscripts, David explains that in fact much precision was implicit. So, if a recipe by a British traveler in the Mediterranean called for a ‘tin’ of something, readers knew how much to use:

“A tin is an English round fifty-cigarette tin, at one time a fairly common unit of measurement in Egypt and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. It holds 8 fl. oz., the same as an American measuring cup.” (Spices, Salt 66)

In Britain and the United States a ‘glass,’ or wineglass, held 6 oz; a ‘teacupful’ meant about 5 oz; a ‘breakfast cup’ contained 7-8 oz and a ‘coffee cup’ was in fact “an after dinner coffee cup” similar to a demitasse that held 2 1/2 oz and that still appears in posh or old-fashioned restaurants throughout Britain. (Spices, Salt 66-67)

David is thoughtful enough to warn her readers that any reference to ‘pints’ in British sources before 1878 refers to 16 oz rather than imperial measures “and that a quart in American terms is 32 oz.” This matters, and not just for British users of American recipes or translations: “Subtract 8 oz. from each of those quarts of stock and wine, milk and cream specified in the older books and it makes quite a difference.” (Spices, Salt 67)

Measurement mattered to David in the broader context too, even though in characteristically contradictory mode she also decried the ‘fallacy’ in cookbook criticism of the “application to the recipes of what is believed to be the acid test implied in the question do they work?” (Spices, Salt 16; similar attacks on precise or practical recipes appear in some of her other books and essays) At this interval we feel compelled to note in candor to our readers that we lack the imagination that David demands: The ‘fallacy’ is particularly dear to the Editor, who desperately wants to know whether a recipe works before embarking upon its preparation.

Notwithstanding these reservations, and despite her famed disdain for the deadening hand of detailed recipes, by 1970 David had followed the lead of Eliza Acton, whom she admired, and become more precise:

“By temperament a non-measurer, I have myself, first through the wish to communicate recipes and now by force of habit, become the reverse. I find that the discipline of weighing and measuring does one’s cooking nothing but good, provided that one does not waste time messing about with quarter-saltspoons and five-eighths of pints, nor, above all, expect that precision will eliminate the necessity to keep one’s head or train one’s eye and palate.” (Spices, Salt 68)

The last snotty, silly lines aside, this is a sane retreat from David’s earlier refusal to countenance structured instruction.

2. A trading nation with a yearning for exotica.

These initial chapters include learned discursions into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, out to the Raj and irrelevantly if characteristically over to continental Europe. It is the writing on herbs, spices and condiments and their history of passage into the British (for much in Spices, Salt and Aromatics goes beyond England) kitchen, however, that wins best in book. While it includes the arbitrary prejudices and questionable judgments that spatter all of David’s work, it also includes daring insights grounded in solid research.

She demolishes the canard that traditional British food is limited and bland, confiding that “[l]engthy though they may appear,” her “notes on spices, aromatics and condiments used in the English kitchen are very far from complete.” (Spices, Salt 63) Garlic, for example, was widely used for centuries, and although David omits mention of it, both Andrew Boorde (before 1562) and Chaucer’s Summoner prized garlic (“Wel loved he garlike, onions and lekes”). (Pounds 197)

David cites the ketchups, mushroom and walnut as well as tomato (due for rehabilitation as an ingredient; it is not just a condiment for fast food) that evolved from the “old ‘store sauces’ based on vinegar and horse-radish, soy and garlic [there it is again], on pickled walnuts, oysters, cockles, mushrooms, lemons and anchovies.” English kitchens stocked anchovy paste too (once ubiquitous in home cooking, still so in restaurant kitchens), along with capers; caraway; lesser known herbs and vegetable accents (she gives some 25 examples, from angelica to galingal and pennyroyal); horseradish itself; hot, soy and Worcestershire sauces; and lots of the other prepared concoctions beloved of the British (but not the French) since the mid-nineteenth century. (Spices, Salt 11, 63-64)

Lest anyone think that these seasonings saw only limited use, the best selling cookbook of its time, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (first published in 1747) should disavow her of the notion. “Glasse adored using nutmeg, mace and cloves, and for her sauces she reached for anchovies, horseradish, lemon, shallots, oysters and lots of cream.” (Colquohon 202) Similarly, Elizabeth Raffald, who succeeded Glasse as the best selling British cookbook author with her Experienced English Housekeeper (in print continuously from 1769 through 1834), laced her recipes with everything from anchovies, “Chyan” pepper [cayenne] and cloves to lemons both fresh and pickled (she includes a recipe), “beaten mace,” mint, nutmeg, sage, thyme, walnut ketchup and more. (See, e.g., Raffald 42, 44, 64)

East Indiamen on the Malabar Coast.

All this reflects Britain’s long history as a trading nation. Its cuisine has been as promiscuous as its language, so, in addition,

“there is the juice of fresh limes--a condiment rather than a flavouring or aromatic--there are dried mushrooms and anchovies preserved in salt brine or in olive oil, and above all there is Parmesan cheese, for it should not be forgotten that the uses of grated Parmesan as a condiment have been appreciated in English cooking for some centuries, certainly since the Stuart period.” (Spices, Salt 63)

The Editor learned from Spices, Salt and Aromatics that watercress historically has been treated as much like an herb--or sharp spice--as a salad green, and put her newfound knowledge to immediate use with excellent effect in a sauce that David describes:

“One herb which we can get nearly all year round is watercress. Perhaps because we regard this plant as a salad and soup or garnishing herb rather than as a flavouring or aromatic we forget about delicious things like watercress butter, and about the useful properties of a little chopped watercress as an alternative to mustard and pepper in a cream sauce (especially good with fish), and as a filling for omelettes instead of the fines herbs so hard to come by.” (Spices, Salt 62)

There is a delightful passage on nutmeg and the Georgian vogue for sterling nutmeg graters, and David is good on the distinction between fresh and dried herbs as well as on their distinctive uses. Perhaps best of all, she highlights the prominence of cayenne, “which the English regard with great affection,” and mace, “[i]n English cooking a most important spice.... How mace came to be the one hundred per cent traditional, invariable and indispensable spice of all English potted meats and fish compounds is not at all clear.” (Spices, Salt 24, 36) Readers are invited to clarify this lacuna in the historiography.

A selection of 18th C. nutmeg graters

3. An eccentric and discursive writer.

David being David, however, none of this is unambiguous, and some of it is disingenuous; like much of O. Henry, the whip cracks at the final gun. It is not enough to praise Parmesan; she goes on, inaccurately and gratuitously, to pillory English cheeses. The title of the book itself is unlikely to be unironic; not only had David lost the ability to taste salt due to a stroke seven years before publication (Treneman), but in fact Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen contains proportionately little discussion of it (and the use of salt hardly distinguishes the English from any other cuisine) along with a great deal of material that cannot be considered English. For example,

“[a]n Arabian way of cooking red mullet--grilled in a sauce composed of tomatoes, onions, spices, shallots, salt, pepper, garlic, curry powder and saffron--sounded irresistible, so much so that if you barely knew whether a red mullet was a bird, a flower or a fish you very quickly set about finding out.” (Spices, Salt 19)

Fish - Gardon Blanc

Nor does David confine herself to recipes in which spices or aromatics are dominant flavorings or even flavorings at all. Onions are simply roasted au naturel, then peeled and buttered; the addition of cinnamon butter is an optional afterthought. She notes how English cookery terms can be baffling and provides a ‘recipe’ for drawn butter:

“If melted butter is not melted butter but a flour-thickened sauce, what is drawn butter? Melted butter--what else? And melted butter is about the simplest sauce you can have.” (Spices, Salt 80)

As another afterthought David provides a recipe (from the 1687 edition of A True Gentlewoman’s Delight by Elizabeth de Grey) that thins the butter with water or possibly vinegar (arguably an ‘aromatic’ even if that stretches things) but plain melted butter with or without the optional acid is hardly a spiced sauce.

One of her best recipes, for Sussex stewed steak, uses port, stout and vinegar or ketchup (granted, one of David’s condiments) but no spices or herbs other than black pepper, the international default ingredient for savory dishes. The Editor notes that in a strange coincidence, Jane Grigson includes the same recipe (she credits David) on the same page as Spices, Salt and Aromatics (144) in her own English Food.

4. The tempest, or, what there was of song did concern herself.

David was addicted to clandestine transgression (and to both alcohol and tobacco in heavy doses, which probably caused her stroke at the age of 49) so that as these anomalies imply, her chosen title may have been just one of many inside jokes at the expense of her adoring audience.

She was born Elizabeth Gwynne in 1913, the daughter of a Tory MP and his formidable chatelaine. David was christened in the chapel at the palace of Westminster, ‘came out’ as a debutante and never really foreswore her class; as Lisa Chaney notes, David may have styled herself a rebel but was no outsider: “However much she went in for slumming she always assumed that in times of trouble she would be rescued. And frequently she was.” (Hill; Chaney 106) Hers was an unconventional family; Aunt Violet openly and simultaneously consorted with four men and most of David’s own erotic liaisons were tolerated to the extent they were detected.

David was beautiful, charismatic, charming, funny, rude, inconsiderate, selfish, vain, unforgiving and mean. Her relationships tended to include an element of asymmetry; David demanded the lead role, along with prerogatives of privilege and personality. She “was always adept at collecting ‘loyal subjects,’ some more “slave-like than others” in the words of one acquaintance. (Chaney 418) She liked to pick up lovers from beneath her class and work with people she could bully.

By the age of 17 David had lived in Paris--she was characteristically uncharitable about the family with whom she boarded while studying at the Sorbonne--and by 25 had worked as a couturier and actress (she slept with the married theater manager). Other than a vague ‘high Tory monarchism,’ David took no notice of politics. (Chaney 290, 372) Not even the peril that Britain faced during the first years of the Second World War appears to have moved her.

If David enjoyed food and spent a lifetime obsessed with it, she appears never to have had much of a palate and always maintained, while consuming tuns of it, that wine of any kind was indistinguishable to her. (See, e.g., Cooper 229) She may have been an epicure (or not; she loved instant coffee, confessing that “I don’t know what all the fuss is, about the real stuff.” Chaney 207-08) but was no esthete: she was “unaware of the artistic turmoil” roiling Paris during her stay there in 1930, loathed the evocative illustrations by John Minton that helped make her early books bestsellers (“They are so cluttered and messy. They embarrass me.... ”) and was “bored by music.” (Kelly; Chaney 44; Cooper 229) She liked paintings, but her taste was pedestrian and nearly limited to the depiction of food, possibly no more than an affectation to burnish her image.

By 1939 the future ‘David’ had sailed off to Greece in a ramshackle yawl, the Evelyn Hope, with a married man, the minor author Charles Gibson Cowan. (Chaney 95, 97) They fled from port to port around the Mediterranean as the Germans advanced south and east behind them. Gibson Cowan “was the ultimate outsider. He was working class, left-wing, Jewish [in itself scandalous to the anti-Semitic interwar upper class that David inhabited], an actor, a pickpocket, a vagabond, who lived in caves in Hastings for a time.” (Treneman) Neither was faithful to the other and the affair inevitably foundered.

Anthony David was the unloved husband she acquired in Cairo during the war. He was an officer in the British Army; it was nothing but a marriage of convenience for David and did not last. Before, during and after her marriage, David favored ‘torrid’ affairs and one-night stands with married men and probably with women too (Stacey; Chaney 350); in the old days, we could have gotten away, accurately, with calling her an amoral nymphomaniac and homewrecker. This all ended with the stroke in 1963 that robbed David of her ferocious libido for the rest of her life: “The tiny little malign blow which wrecked my sense of taste has also put an end (some might think it high time too) to any interest I might still have had in sex.” (Cooper 233; Stacey)

If, however, Hazlitt was a fearless libertine, David had been a fearful one, and while she disregarded both convention and the consequences to others of her behavior, she also husbanded her upright reputation “behind an imposing patrician manner,” in large part by keeping her acquaintances apart and her lovers secret. (Stacey; see, e.g. Cooper 100)

David’s acolytes, in particular Jill Norman, her besotted (and compromised; the Norman imprint has profited from David’s image and writings) literary executor, have turned cartwheels attempting to keep David’s private and inner lives unexamined. Norman refused to cooperate with Lisa Chaney on her biography and has gone to some length to suppress any information other than what appears in David’s own reticent writings. (Treneman)

It is difficult to believe that she had many real friends other than Marian Butterworth, a compliant colleague from schooldays at Godstowe who was content to let David dominate her, and the writer Norman Douglas. She quarreled and fell out with most acquaintances, including the many lovers and her business associates. Her sense of humor often erupted only to ridicule others and she kept score, often of petty or imagined slights. (See, e.g. Chaney 222-23)

David’s treatment, or neglect, of perhaps her most slavish minion was not atypical of her attitude toward them:

“Her sister Felicite rented the top part of [David’s] house, a somewhat pathetic figure who typed her sister’s books, helped with the research and admired her success without aspiring to it.

In 1976 Felicite was taken to hospital, suffering from, among other things, malnutrition. The awful irony of the great cook with a starving sister in the attic was not lost on David, who dreaded people finding out.” (Hill) (emphasis supplied)

‘I am large, I contain multitudes’ comes to mind, but not in the benevolent sense that Whitman intended.

Douglas was 72 when they met in Antibes during David’s jaunt through the Mediterranean with Gibson Cowan. Douglas has been described as “a gamey old libertine who had decamped to Europe after allegedly molesting an under-age boy.” (Stacey) The ‘old libertine’ was a congenial companion to David. He taught her how to find and enjoy the best foods, in the most visceral sense, cared nothing for convention and ratified her self-centered bent. David leads her 1969 tribute to him, “Have It Your Own Way,” with the ethos that Douglas inscribed in the copy he gave her of his book Old Calabria: “Do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences. Damn good Rule of Life.” (Omelette 120) They met again in Egypt, where they spent the war and implemented the Rule with relish. As always, her drinking bouts were epic. (See, e.g., Chaney 173, 221) David cut an exotic figure dressed in her own hybrid Anglo-Egyptian attire and indeed did as she pleased, which included taking multiple lovers and family handouts to supplement her income from working for the Ministry of Information, first as a cypherene and then as a librarian. Her employment arose from necessity rather than patriotism and she found it ‘distasteful’ to work five days a week. (Chaney 175)

David drew from these heady wartime years of living on the edge in an alien culture for everything she wrote other than the pamphlet on potted foods and some of her shorter articles. She was not, however, always receptive to new experiences. She reluctantly joined her husband when he was posted to India in 1946 and never gave the place or him much of a chance. She hated the other officers and their wives. Delhi was “terrible beyond all expectations and description,” the chilies were too hot and “Indian food [was] perfectly frightful.” (Chaney 195, 197) The efforts of her Indian cooks (whom she systematically fired) to replicate European dishes were, if possible, even worse:

“[S]he did not want the ‘nice clean English nanny food’ they were accustomed to preparing for their English employers.... She was trying to stay away from that very England which the Raj was concerned to uphold more desperately with each passing year. The food served up by Indians to their British masters was a fundamental reflection of the Raj ethos and, as despising a large proportion of the customary elements of Britishness had long ago become an integral part of Elizabeth’s life, she was not likely to thank anyone trying to thrust them down her neck.” (Chaney 196-97) (emphasis in original)

5. A formidable and flawed author.

On occasion cracks have appeared in the formidable façade that is David’s professional reputation. Alan Davidson, who would eulogize David for her “acts of generosity” and for “transforming British attitudes to food and cookery” (Wilder Shores 298, 299), notes warily in The Oxford Companion to Food that her Book of Mediterranean Food “was inspirational rather than didactic.” (Companion 245) Chaney observes that the book “half denies the domestic aspect of cooking.” (Chaney 421) On rereading it today, it is not easy to determine why it caused such fuss; the recipes are sketchy and frequently inauthentic, the writing oddly dated. Some are not even Mediterranean. One, for roast duck, includes no ingredient except for the duck and some butter. Should the reader season the duck with any spices, salt or aromatics? Apparently not. The recipe advises the hapless cook that:

“The flavour of roast duck is much improved if the cleaned bird is first put in a pan over a hot fire until most of the fat has been extracted (Watch to see that it does not burn).” (Mediterranean Food 115)

It would be more accurate if equally impractical to ask the cook to watch while the duck inevitably burns in a pan over high heat for the time required to render its fat. Should it be turned? We might infer that David trusts her reader to do so but for the remainder of the recipe, which instructs the cook to “put 3 tablespoons of butter into the pan and place it in a hot oven. Baste and turn frequently for 1 ½ hours” after the scorching process. Incidentally, this sequence would guarantee sodden rather than crisp skin and stringy overcooked meat--had the burnt victim survived David’s defatting fiasco.

The recipe begs a number of other questions too. How big is the duck? Does size matter? What is the breed? Did it originate in Aylesbury, Long Island, Muscovy or Rouen? Should the recipe change based on the answers?

Mediterranean Food was and is, as The Economist noted in 2008, a “peculiar” book. (Economist 142) Chaney maintains that all of “David’s Mediterranean books were about fantasy and travel writing” (Treneman; see Chaney passim) rather than about history and food.

If the bulk of her work consists of middlebrow travelogue, however, Davidson is right, and David remains important historically, not for the substance of her writing but for what it symbolized and what it wrought. Jane Grigson has referred to a generation of British cooks who “were the heirs of the Elizabeth David revolution--perhaps the word should be revelation” (Observer Guide 27), and Mrs. Grigson is a credible source (She also cites David a dozen times in The Observer Guide to British Cookery alone). Food could be fun again, and if David’s early distaste for British foodways and insistence on the primacy of the warm south helped accelerate the denigration of an indigenous tradition, that hardly appears to have been her intent.

David’s yearning for novelty and exotica--it is characteristic that “stimulus” and “stimulating” were two of her favorite words--placed her in the right market at the right time (unlike in Britain, her sales never soared in the United States). After David, eating in postwar Britain would become more--much more--than a utilitarian and even unpleasant refueling exercise, but the process would take time. The inhabitants of ‘austerity Britain’ had been suffering through a decade of drab rationing when Mediterranean Food appeared in 1950; working at Elstree a year earlier, Ronald Reagan noted “the severe limitation on food” in England and quipped that “what they do to the food we did to the American Indian.” (Kynaston 315)

If David was unreliable, inaccurate or impractical, who cared? She offered escape: “The smells and noises that filled David’s books were not mere decoration for her books. They were the point of her books.... David’s books were not so much cooking manuals as guides to the kind of food people might well want to cook.” (Economist 142) “That the ingredients in her recipes... were often difficult, or impossible, to obtain at the time, augmented rather than diminished her appeal.” (Telegraph) The end of rationing in 1954 gave David’s readers a chance to fulfill these fantasies.

6. Paradox and paradigm; the trouble with England.

The smells and noises of the English kitchen were not so alien and therefore not as interesting to David, and the difference plays itself out once she curtails, at least to an extent, her discussion of exotica in the second part of Spices, Salt and Aromatics. As David turns from the discussion of spices to the preparation of dishes, the book drifts into the less rigorous landscape of her earlier writing without its heady rush of adventure.

This second and bigger component of the text (over two thirds of its length) contains its recipes, “which” according to David “are the core of the book.” (Spices, Salt 64) This, however, is another one of her turns toward misdirection. Cooper, the ‘official’ and overly discreet biographer chosen by Norman, notes of Spices, Salt and Aromatics that “[o]ne glance at it shows that it is not a recipe book. Elizabeth had had enough of that particularly laborious and painstaking process.... ” (Cooper 259) David herself acknowledges that unlike the chapters on seasonings, these recipes appeared earlier as articles published during the 1960s variously in Harrod’s Food News, House and Garden, the Spectator, the Sunday Despatch, the Sunday Telegraph and Wine and Food. It shows.

This larger part of the book lacks structure or pattern. The recipe formats vary, causing some confusion. Some recipes give the kind of detailed instructions that David by this time claims to favor; they are good, even if for example Jane Grigson’s usually are better, and Mrs. Grigson’s treatment of English cuisine unquestionably is more comprehensive. Other recipes, however, are the merest sketches; they predate David’s conversion to practicality. All of this gives Spices, Salt and Aromatics the texture of a potboiler that has been cut and pasted together. Sometimes David quotes verbatim other authors’ recipes; it is not clear whether she has either cooked or eaten any of them. In common with all of her books, however, it is clear that David neither cooked nor ate all of the recipes she presents as her own. Some of them do not work.

It is superficially puzzling that so many of the recipes in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen have nothing to do with England or even Britain. The passage about Arabian mullet cited earlier is not the only import. Maybe David kept clippings of her articles on foreign food and inserted them into Spices, Salt and Aromatics to meet her publisher’s word count; more likely, she included them just because they were handy and she liked them. This was not a woman constrained by convention, system or logic, notwithstanding the image she sought to cultivate.

A sampling of foreign interlopers includes “aubergines à la Tunisienne;” beans in the oven (“a Piedmontese peasant dish”); three Chinese and a number of Indian recipes including vindaloo, which is of Portuguese derivation; Greek lamb kebabs; variously kichiri or khichri “from which the English evolved kedgeree;” Moroccan kebabs; paella Valenciana; paprikakraut from the “Hotel am see, Alt-Ausse, Styria, Austria,” ‘pillau’ rice; pork grilled on the skewer, “an ingenious little recipe adapted from one well known in Italian household cookery;” risotto Milanese; sassaties from South Africa via Malaysia; and of course a number of French preparations. David even includes passages from her own French Provincial Cooking. (See, e.g., Spices, Salt 114-15, 130, 133, 140, 141)

English Bread & Yeast Cookery is similarly international. It also is a better book, and britishfoodinamerica will return to it. There, David does describe British breads but baguettes, batards and lots of other French recipes jostle with Genoese flatbread, German pumpernickel, pizza (both American and Italian), polenta, tortillas and Vienna loaves too.

She makes no claim for the English origin or adaptation of these recipes, nor does David mount an argument that any of this foreign food had become a fixture in the English kitchen. As to inclusion of the French dishes, however, she provides a possible hint with her dubious assertion (echoed by Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food) that “English and French traditions of cookery are too inextricably interwoven to allow of arbitrary division into two separate streams,” although elsewhere (in typically contradictory fashion) she does note that “French, Italian and other styles of European cooking [are] vastly different from our own.” (Spices, Salt 101, 199) Even her admirable early chapter on herbs opens with a meditation on Genoese and Nicoise dishes and mentions Middle Eastern seasonings, but other than mint, which also flavors those cuisines, nothing English. (Spices, Salt 58)

It remains a puzzle why David includes these other ‘styles’ in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, and better, more authentic recipes for most of the non-English dishes appear in cookbooks devoted to non-English cuisines.

Sins of omission also may damn the outwardly penitent. David’s ‘paean to English’ food does not even include trifle or steak and kidney pudding, and gives no shrift to “the tradition of the savoury pie” indispensably chronicled in an entire chapter by Elisabeth Ayrton. (Ayrton 85-125) Significant figures like Dr. Kitchiner and Mrs. Raffald are absent from a book touted as the product of historical scholarship, and others including Mrs. Rundell get the bum’s rush with no narrative or analysis. As noted, neither Boorde nor Chaucer appears in her reference to the traditional English use of garlic.

Then there are the prejudices. David does not like sage (“it deadens the food with its musty, dried blood scent”) or rosemary (“with sage, this herb figures in my kitchen as a decoration only”):

“Many Italians stuff joints of lamb and pork almost to bursting with rosemary, and the result is perfectly awful. The meat is drowned in the acrid taste of the herb and the spiky little leaves get stuck between your teeth.” (Spices, Salt 60)

This passage invites two observations. First, it has nothing to do with anything English and, four decades on, macular architecture must have diverged from past norms; we never have encountered anyone who has suffered oral stab wounds from properly prepared rosemary.

David “had no time for the Englishwoman’s passion for cakes and biscuits.” (Cooper 275) "Scotland was barbarism." (Chaney 242) She declares that sherry is bad in sauces (while featuring it in “Aleppo Chicken” from A Book of Mediterranean Food) and that they must not be thickened (that “tendency” has “contributed to the ruin of our cooking”), even in 1970 a tired chestnut. English sausages are terrible. “Corn oil, with its detestable taste and greasy cling” is an abomination unsuitable “for any... purpose whatsoever.” (We like it.) (Spices, Salt 71, 81, 232) She includes a meandering discourse on the near impossibility of comprehending Chinese technique or of cooking Chinese dishes at home, mistitled “Salt and the Duck” (David has inserted a throwaway line on Welsh salt duck but once again omits discussion of anything English), that will surprise the harried cook who habitually hustles home from work to toss authentic, fast and easy stir-fries for the family. This is particularly curious because David cites several accessible Chinese cookbooks packed with good, simple recipes, including the wonderful How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao from 1945. (Spices, Salt 198-201)

David loathed supermarkets and writes, unconvincingly, that [t]he reek of fat dripping from the serried ranks of spit-revolving chickens” in one “is indescribably revolting.” (Spices, Salt 190) By 1970, the passage may already have been timebound; she had written it during 1961, when food in Britain was a riskier proposition; but why republish an anachronism? Besides, even assuming that the outcome of the roasting process was inedible, spit roasting chicken is like brewing coffee or frying bacon; however badly it emerges in the end, its smells intoxicating in medias res.

David also dislikes a fellow icon, Mrs. Beeton. She dislikes both the memory of the woman and her Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton for plagiarizing Eliza Acton, a hero of David’s (and of ours), and Mrs. Beeton for dullness, disorganization and desultory instruction. David pours on the acid: “We feel that Mrs Beeton promises us the godlike wisdom of a revered professor combined with Nanny’s protective comfort. We don’t get it.” (Omelette 302; see, e.g., French Provincial Cooking 470; Spices, Salt 15-16)

This is not without irony either. David wanted to be considered a scholar, and should have known that copyright protection has not always extended to cookbooks; wholesale copying of recipes was an accepted practice well into the nineteenth century. David herself at times appropriated recipes without attribution, and at least one of her victims was so incensed that he subsequently refused to speak to her. Furthermore, Salt, Spices and Aromatics, along with much of David’s other work, is itself no paradigm of organization or instruction.

To be fair, David rests much criticism of Mrs. Beeton on the various later editions, most of which Mrs. Beeton, who died in 1865, did not write. David’s own writings about Mrs. Beeton and the posthumous versions of Household Management, mutilated and then distended to a ridiculous length by its publisher, are not without nuance (not to say contradiction), although when David does have something good to say about the Victorian prodigy, she describes her own aspirational persona:

It’s not that I’m all that set on the real Mrs. Beeton’s book.... But the great points about Isabella Beeton’s Household Management were the clarity and detail of her general instructions, her brisk comments, her no-nonsense asides. No doubt she was sometimes a governessy young woman. That was just what made her voice the voice of authority. Mrs. Beeton commands... Her pupils obey. When she says, for example, of a steak and kidney pudding recipe that because the meat is cut up into very small pieces ‘this pudding will be found far nicer and more full of gravy than when laid in large pieces on the dish’--well, you jolly well do what she says and if you can’t be bothered you know you’ve only yourself to blame for the poor results.” (Omelette 303)

It is tempting to believe once again that David is playing the slyly ironic insider. Here she is on the selection of kidney for stews: “It would be wrong to suppose that by spending more on delicate lamb or veal kidneys the dish would be improved. It is the ox kidney which gives the flavour.” (Spices, Salt 133) The voice is the same as the one she ascribes to Mrs. Beeton, although as an aside the Editor is compelled to note that today a veal kidney will set you back all of about 80 cents at the supermarket if you can find one there, and butchers give them away; besides, they are in fact preferable to ox, which has a musty taste a little strong for most American palates.

David, the ‘embodiment of English hauteur’ (Stacey) did not much care for England, a place that “provoked... much animosity in her.” (Chaney 217) As Cooper, the admiring biographer notes, David “never found a lyrical voice to describe England, or even Wales, in the way that she had described France and Italy.” (Cooper 262) Most ironic is the ineluctable impression that she does not much like English food:

“Those who make extravagant claims for English cooking do it the most disservice. English cooking, even at its best, is manifestly not the best in the world... it lacks variety and subtlety and is very erratic.... ” (“Taste of England” 12)

In Spices, Salt and Aromatics itself, she writes that English food is “extravagantly overpraised by its advocates,” adding that it “is never seen to greater advantage than when it is presented in perfect simplicity, unadorned, and on a very large scale.” (Spices, Salt 165) The reader should be forgiven for wondering whether this retreat to cliché undermines the premise of the book.

This kind of contradiction is not atypical in David’s work. Nor is the fact that she was ambivalent about a subject that she addressed in detail. Her attitude toward Christmas provides another example. She hated it, but nonetheless drafted a series of notes for a book to be called Food for Christmas (edited and published after her death by Norman as Elizabeth David’s Christmas) which, as usual, includes material reprinted from previous efforts--including Spices, Salt and Aromatics. In a similar vein, David professed distain for the United States but probably was happiest in California, or at least at her least unhappy there, the embodiment of the American Dream.

7. Insufficient stimulus.

In the end, if Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen is an interesting book, it is not a good one: It is hard to escape the impression that David could not warm to her subject. We should have guessed as much, both from the inclusion of so much foreign food and because David never bothered to integrate the earlier articles by editing them into a consistent format for the creation of a coherent text. This lack of enthusiasm for English food is prefigured in the introduction, where David provides her adherents with a tribute (another rerun, from the Spectator in 1963) to what is likely her favorite British cookbook, Hilda Leyel’s Gentle Art of Cookery (there is a case for Eliza Acton). It is the source of the mullet recipe described earlier.

Mrs. Leyel founded the now diminished Culpeper empire of herb and spice; in a sad irony, the Culpeper shops in Britain now emphasize cosmetics over seasonings, an unwitting commentary on the superficiality and impatience of the times. Her idiosyncratic volume may after all explain the perplexities of Spices, Salt and Aromatics, with the bracing caveat that we at britishfoodinamerica are most wary of psychohistorical analysis.

The Gentle Art of Cookery is among the less traditionally English of books in the British cookery canon. Mrs. Leyel informs her readers that “[n]o recipes are given for plainly roasting or boiling” meat and complains of “the dullness of English meat dishes.” (Gentle Art 187) Nonetheless The Gentle Art remains fun to read over eighty years after publication. It is packed with the purportedly exotic, both authentic and inauthentic, including David’s examples of almond rice, mukaczina and a salad of sliced oranges, black olives and chopped onion “brought from the East by Anatole France.” (Spices, Salt 93) Mrs. Leyel offers other exotica too; ‘epaule de mouton a la Soubise,’ ‘a mooloo of fish,’ a clutch of ‘American’ recipes, a chapter of “Dishes From the Arabian Nights.”

The pedigree of many recipes in The Gentle Art obviously is not British at all, and David cannot curb her enthusiasm:

“When I first had Mrs. Leyel’s book nothing and nobody on earth could have sold me an English rice pudding, but a rice cream made with lemon and almonds and served in a silver dish, well, that gave one something to think about, silver dish and all.... Mrs. Leyel certainly took one far away indeed from the world of grapefruit and scotch eggs.... ” (Spices, Salt 18-19)

Leaving aside the observation that grapefruit would not appear to be traditionally English, and that David liked to burn her straw men, there is nothing wrong with a Scotch egg, something that itself is exotic to anybody who was not born in Britain. Nor is it original to recommend a fancy presentation for enlivening meals--at which, after all, the English excelled even when the food was bad; think of all that cutlery, from fish knives to pudding spoons, the heavy silver tureens and specialized coffee services.

Unlike the work of other British contemporaries including Elisabeth Ayrton, Theodora FitzGibbon and Jane Grigson, David’s book feels dated. She applauds Mrs. Leyel for ‘emphasizing the strangeness’ of mushrooms and chestnuts that are indigenous to Britain; obsesses over the novelty of green peppercorns; warns that dried herbs are fresh only once a year and that kidneys are costly; archaically and repeatedly decries products ‘of commerce’ (we do need shops, and not all prepared food ever has been bad food); and inaccurately asserts that “[i]n England... we have always tended to regard olive oil as medicinal rather than as a marvelous and necessary table delicacy.” (Spices, Salt 75) Then there is that insular inability to comprehend basic Chinese technique. Once again, some editing back in 1970 would have weeded away obsolete notions.

Like much of David’s work, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen is more an interesting historical artifact than either serious scholarship or reliable guidance for the home cook. Unlike her other work, however, much of it has the air of the arbitrary and absent-minded. At one point David advises her readers that “[p]ork... is always at its best when salted and seasoned before it is cooked.” (Spices, Salt 152) While that undeniably is true, it is equally so for any other fresh meat, a point that David overlooks.

Much as she might have hoped to channel the ethos of Mrs. Leyel, David’s patchwork lacks the playfulness of her idol; “her delivery can be horribly imperious.” (Stacey) The Editor cannot find a way to disagree with Rosemary Hill that David was “often wildly overpraised, as an author.” (Hill) In the second part of Spices, Salt and Aromatics the prose has become labored as well as scolding: Perhaps this was the inevitable result of her previous overestimation by an uncritical fan base. England may be a green and pleasant land but it manifestly was not the warm south of palm trees, peasants and exotica that remained David’s abiding inspiration. As to Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, her heart just was not in it.

Recipes for roast duck, salt duck, Sussex stewed steak, potatoes in milk, roast onions and other things appear in the practical.

Bibliographical note.

David remains a somewhat elusive figure for those intellectually rigorous and curious enough to desire documentary or even anecdotal evidence about her, for a number of reasons. Not least among them is the absence from Lisa Chaney’s unauthorized biography of footnotes, endnotes or the identification of numerous sources. These omissions are inexcusable in such an ambitious work of revisionism. Artemis Cooper’s citations in the authorized biography are little better and she engages in a lot of false intimacy and speculation. (“Elizabeth confided that Charles used to tie her up to the mast and whip her--which may have been no more than a joke, but it certainly implies that sex aboard the Evelyn Hope was exciting and inventive.” Cooper 70) Neither biography is definitive. Cooper is the better writer but on balance Chaney’s is the better book; as Hill notes, “she has more subtle insights into David’s background.” (Hill)

The problem has been compounded by the stubborn and misguided refusal of David’s literary executor to countenance any attempt to come to terms with the actual terms of her idol’s existence. Jill Norman would rather preserve the Bowdlerized and distorted persona that David adopted in public during her lifetime. (Stacey, Treneman)

Now, however, some opportunity beckons an historian to add at least some of the missing details to David’s biography. Its titanic endowment has allowed Harvard to purchase her papers for the Schlesinger Library (formerly the library of Radcliffe, the defunct women’s college of the university) and some 2000 of her extensively annotated culinary books are kept at the Guildhall in London. Both libraries are open to the public.


Anon., “Elizabeth David” (obituary), The Telegraph (23 May 1992)

Anon., “Pluck a flamingo: What cookbooks really teach us,” The Economist (20 December 2008)

Elisabeth Ayrton, The Cookery of England (London 1974)

Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London 1865; subsequent radical mutations continuously printed at least through the twentieth century)

Lisa Chaney, Elizabeth David (London 1998)

Buwei Yung Chao, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (New York 1945)

Kate Colquohon, Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking (London 2007)

Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David (London 1999)

Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food (London 1950, 1955)
English Bread & Yeast Cookery (London 1977)
French Provincial Cookery (London 1960, 1997)
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (London 1984)
Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (London 1970;reprinted 2003)
“A Taste of England,” Petits Propos Culinaire 66 (December 2001)

Alan Davidson (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford 1999)
The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy (Berkeley 2002)

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London 1747)

Jane Grigson, English Food (London 1974)
The Observer Guide to British Cookery (London 1984)

Rosemary Hill, “Swaying at the Stove,” London Review of Books, Vol. 21 No. 24 (9 December 1999)

Tom Kelly, “Elizabeth David, the Queen of cookery who gave her rivals a roasting,” Daily Mail (London, 2 July 2009)

David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-51 (London 2008)

Hilda Leyel & Olga Hartley, The Gentle Art of Cookery (London 1925)

Jill Norman (ed.), Elizabeth David’s Christmas (Boston 2008)

N.J.G. Pounds, The Culture of the English People (Cambridge, England 1994)

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (Manchester 1769; Southover Press facsimile printed 1997)

Caroline Stacey, “Elizabeth David: And you thought Nigella was sexy... ,” The Independent (14 January 2006)

Anne Treneman, “Elizabeth David’s final recipe: take one culinary saint, two rival books, add wine and sex and stir to boiling,” The Independent (2 December 1998)