I knew nothing of Elizabeth David prior to reading Summer Cooking, but as I soon discovered in the foreword by Molly O’Neill, she’s a pretty big deal. In fact, she’s part of that very select group of mid-century food writers—people like Julia Child, James Beard, and M.F.K. Fisher—who are credited with having “introduced the notion of life beyond duty, nutrition, and habit, suggesting instead the possibility of pleasure.”
Of course, the possibility of food as pleasure in my present-day, Los Angeles-based existence, particularly this week where my mom has been visiting me and where we’ve been restaurant hopping from one insanely delicious place to the next, hardly seems revolutionary, but need I recall this post, or this one, to remind myself that things were, indeed, different back then.
And yet, reading the introduction to the 1955 edition of Summer Cooking out of context, you might just think it was a young Alice Waters talking at you:
My object in writing this book has been to provide recipes…with emphasis on two aspects of cookery which are increasingly disregarded: the suitability of certain foods to certain times of the year, and the pleasure of eating the vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat or fish which is in season, therefore at its best, most plentiful, and cheapest.
Sounds familiar, no?
That said, the book cannot wholly belie David’s mid-century palate and traditional Anglo upbringing. For example, I may not have been totally convinced by her kidney omelette recipe (“Cut a cleaned sheep’s kidney into dice.”). And I may have thought that calling a zucchini a courgette is a bit like calling an eggplant an aubergine. (Something she also does.) However, was her chapter on eggs a creative reminder of the many simple dinners I could make on a hot summer night with just an egg as the main source of inspiration? Most certainly. And did her recipe for Geranium Cream have me writing down ingredients like sweet-scented geranium leaves with enthusiasm and a question-mark after them? You bet.
In fact, so charmed was I by this little paperback that I picked up Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David. This is when I really started to become aware of David's revolutionary-leaning personality.
The best example of her rebellious nature comes in the short chapter aptly titled, “Acting it Out,” which opens with Elizabeth at 18-years-old being presented at “Court by the Countess of Midleton, as arranged by her mother." (Sidebar: “Those to be presented had to wear a headdress with three small white ostrich feathers to which was attached a short tulle veil, a gown with a court train which trailed some eighteen inches behind the wearer, and long white kid gloves.”) Instead of marriage, however, and much to her family’s chagrin, she opted for working in the theater.
The 24-page chapter ends in 1939, and within those seven years, Elizabeth has worked countless odd jobs, traveled much of the world, and taken her share of intriguing lovers. She eventually returns to England and to one man in particular, Charles Gibson Cowan, a married, equally free-spirited, aspiring playwright with whom, in the winter of 1938, she “began to fantasize about buying a boat and sailing away.” With financial help from Elizabeth’s Uncle Jasper, the two ultimately purchase The Evelyn Hope and set sail for France in 1939—the year that also marked the beginning of World War II.
Which is to say: Elizabeth had a mind of her own. To go from tulle and ostrich feathers to setting sail with a married lover at the onset of an international war must be, at the very least, proof of that, right? Ah, and I haven’t even told you about the chapter on Norman Douglas who she met while she and Charles were stuck in Antibes, and who became quite an influence, bidding her adieu to Corsica with the following advice: “‘Always do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences. Damned good rule of life.’” Ironically or oddly enough, Elizabeth was about to take some major consequences… But I don’t want to give the whole story away.
Needless to say, I recommend the book. Specifically, I might recommend reading it in bed on the first cold afternoon of September as the sun is setting and you finally have a quiet moment alone to enjoy Elizabeth’s adventures all to yourself.
This week’s attempt, however, is not a video of Matt and I setting sail. (Major bummer, I know.) No, it’s taken from the dessert section of Summer Cooking, where David writes: “There is nothing more delicious than fruit and cream.”
At the beginning of the season, she recommends not messing with this heroic combination—just serve some fruit alongside some cream and be done with it. But later in the season, “when [berries] get cheaper,” she gives us the green light on turning them into fools, ices, pies, and purées. In a moment of convenience trumping everything, I had purchased some pretty sad-looking strawberries at the grocery store a few blocks away. And despite the price being the same it was at the beginning of summer, as sickly as they appeared, I felt I had David’s complete permission to go ahead and mess with them… Iced Strawberry Fool it was.
In an effort to get into that 1955 state of mind, I made the recommended accompaniment, walnut sandwiches, which David explains, “are very good with ices, instead of the usual biscuits or wafers.” I envisioned the combination of fool and little sandwiches as a late Sunday afternoon snack, but this would be sweet to serve to your friends at your next book club meeting, particularly if that book club were reading something from the fifties, or something about food, or something summery, or something about anything.
The walnut sandwich reminded me of the little jamón y queso sandwiches I would eat on late afternoons when I was living in Argentina, and which always came accompanied by a café con leche. It wasn’t that the sandwiches tasted alike, but they both came with their crusts cut off and seemed to offer that same mix of equal parts indulgence and nourishment.
I know that it’s late in the season, but if you find yourself with one more sun-filled Sunday, I couldn’t recommend making this more. (And, dare I riff on David’s winning combination, but the addition of a glass of prosecco might just turn this into a modern day dream scenario.)
Summer Cooking by Elizabeth David
[My personal notes/suggestions are in these brackets so as not to be confused with those of Ms. David’s.]
Cream together 1½ oz. butter and 2 tablespoons of shelled and chopped walnuts. [I toasted mine. And, bonus, I didn’t burn them this time.] Sandwich between very thin slices of lightly buttered brown bread. Remove the crusts.
Iced Strawberry Fool
1 lb. of strawberries, 3 oz. sugar, ¼ pint double cream.
Sieve the hulled strawberries. [I hulled and pureed my strawberries, but this puree would not go through my sieve. I'd recommend skipping the sieving altogether.] Stir in the sugar. Add this puree gradually to the whipped cream, so that it is quite smooth. Turn into a shallow crystal or silver dish, and put in the refrigerator for several hours, if possible underneath the ice-trays, so that the fool gets as cold as possible without actually freezing. It is important to cover the bowl, or everything else in the refrigerator will smell of strawberries. [Not the worst thing that could happen.]