Exploring two amazing lives
The lives and works of Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher are revisited by Nick Goldie. Nick’s interest in both good eating and food writing resides in his daily life extended to reviewing. He was the former presenter of the radio series ‘Nick’s Kitchen’ on ABC radio. Now living in Cooma, Nick has continued his reviewing of the pleasures of good food writing.
He recently found a copy of the long suppressed novel The Theoretical Foot by MFK Fisher, published as recently as 2016, which led him to re-visit Fisher’s The Art of Eating (1991) and Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (1960) — neither of which was ever far from his kitchen.
CAPTION: MFK Fisher, on left, by Man Ray, 1943. Elizabeth David, on right, c1960, Wikipedia. Background by Brooke Lark, Unsplash.
BOTH OF THEM were beauties. Both had tumultuous love lives, and both of them were sublime writers.
WH Auden famously said of American MFK Fisher that he didn’t know of anyone in the United States who wrote better English prose. Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking is considered a major work of literature and is studied at Harvard; among the many awards that she received, including an OBE, Elizabeth David was most pleased at being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
“… if I were to be read from a recipe book, my absolute first choice would be the books of Elizabeth David — not just for the recipes, but for the beautiful prose, the evocative images, the absorbing discussions of various methods of cooking, and the delightful food-related anecdotes she includes in her books.”
— Anne Gracie
In 1938 Elizabeth David shocked her family by running away to Europe with an actor. They bought a small motorised yacht, crossed the Channel, and headed for the Mediterranean. They seemed not to have noticed that most other people were fleeing west, away from the gathering war clouds, and the couple were duly captured and interned as spies by the Italians. When they were released they headed for Greece, arriving just ahead of the German invasion.
No longer in love, but forced to stay together, they escaped to Egypt, where they parted, and Elizabeth found a job managing a library. She also learned to love Mediterranean food, and when she returned to England as Mrs Anthony David in 1946 — leaving her husband in India — it was the ingredients, olives, aubergines, olive oil, nuts and spices, which were the inspiration for her first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950).
“The essential appeal of her writing lies in its blend of escapism tempered with a sturdy realism. She was first a writer, then one whose subject was food, which she linked constantly to memories and to dreams, capturing the mind and imagination of her reader, altering perceptions and expectations of the everyday. With a steely intellect and mordant wit, her prose can be taut, acid, and languidly descriptive, exuding an estimable good sense and a refined sensuality. She was gifted with a consummate ability to evoke time and place …”
— Lisa Chaney, Elizabeth David: A Biography
Gastronomy and life intermingled
It was characteristic of Elizabeth David that few people were aware of her personal story. Her private life, she considered, was private, while MFK Fisher barely conceals a strand of gleeful eroticism, and her books are celebrations of her own experiences.
Like Elizabeth David, Fisher spent some time as a student in France, boarding with a French family, and came to appreciate French cuisine, especially the hearty dishes — and wines — of the Bordeaux region. And like Ms David, she left her partner for another man, who also happened to be married.
All of this is revealed in her many books about food, notably The Gastronomical Me (1943). Sadly, her new husband Chexbres suffered from the mysterious and incurable Buergners Disease which caused him great agony. His leg had to be amputated, which failed to end his suffering, and he committed suicide three years later.
Meanwhile, the (unmarried) couple had bought and refurbished a farmhouse in Switzerland, which became famous for its cooking, its hospitality, its wine, and perhaps its tolerant morals. This was in the late 1930s, in the shadow of the Second World War, and the menage welcomed friends even when they were not strictly married couples. Fisher and her partner also welcomed Swiss friends and neighbours, who were shocked and delighted by the fine but unorthodox food and the informal good-fellowship which was part of the environment. Fisher describes a retired Swiss judge:
“… important as God to himself and his small community. Who drank a special little toast to his fat wife, and said without any importance at all in his suddenly human voice, Anneli, my dear, I had forgotten I could have such an agreeable evening with you in the room. She lifted her glass to his with great dignity, knowing what he meant after so many years of provincial respectability.”
Making scrambled eggs famous, and different
Many of MFK Fisher’s pieces, which became chapters in her books, were written for The New Yorker (where I first encountered her famous recipe for scrambled eggs) — eight fresh eggs, butter, cream, grated cheese if liked, the eggs dropped into a cool pan and
“… stirred. Never beat. Heat very slowly, stirring occasionally in large curds up from the bottom …”
In 1937, MFK Fisher wrote her novel, The Theoretical Foot (IMAGE SOURCE: www.bloomsbury.com). Much of it is a fictionalised version of material which re-appears as autobiography in The Gastronomical Me. As a novel it was suppressed for many years, finally published in 2016. Young couples move in and out of each other’s lives in that beautiful old Swiss farmhouse.
There are delicious meals and fine wine, and interspersed chapters in italics detail the agony suffered by one of the young men before and after the amputation of his leg. The twin threats of the war and the terrible disease are a recurring thread of darkness beneath the light-hearted dalliances and the idyllic Swiss landscape.
Remaking the British cuisine
Meanwhile Elizabeth David returned to England, and was appalled by the grey nastiness of English food, served almost wilfully by English cooks and landlords. Her response was to conjure up the tastes and colours of her recent past in Mediterranean Food (IMAGE SOURCE: www.pallantbookshop.com). Many of the ingredients were simply not available in England, where rationing was still in force, but the book was enthusiastically received.
In a similar war-time vein, MFK Fisher wrote How to Cook a Wolf in 1942, and extensively revised it in 1951, writing that the original text had “… assumed some of the characteristics of quaintness. It has become, in short, in so short a time, a kind of period piece”.
Fisher dryly quotes her grandmother as saying that in fifty years of marriage, Grandmother has been living on “a war budget”, and goes on to provide faultless and delicious recipes for War Cake, a basic Minestrone, Green Garden Soup, Zucchini frittata, and many more food ideas to delight the guests even if the wolf is at the door.
These were kitchen goddesses indeed. Today’s English food giants — Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Rick Stein and all, acknowledge their debt to Elizabeth David; MFK Fisher, better known on her side of the Atlantic, influenced James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Ruth Reichl among many others. Be thankful that we live in a time of plenty, where good ingredients are freely available, and cooks and chefs and bakers know what to do with it.