Elizabeth David was a leading practitioner of a rare breed, the culinary essayist. The culinary species of this genus is rare because essays in general seem to be a dying breed. The most prominent modern American culinary essayist is John Thorne. While Thorne's primary influence was Richard Olney, Olney and David were of a single mind in style and in many opinions about food. Olney and David together were the patron saints of the invention of the distinctively California cuisine, both being cited by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Jeremiah Tower of Chez Panisse and Stars, and Judy Rodgers of the Zuni Grill as their primary inspirations.
David seems to have had an even bigger effect on English eating. In fact, her effect on English home cooking seems to have been strongly parallel to that of the recently departed Julia Child on American home kitchens in the writers' influence on how supermarkets stock their produce aisles with more unusual fruits and vegetables. The parallel goes even further, as both were relatively tall, both were born to well to do families with little interest in culinary quality, and both served in unusual and important posts overseas during World War II. While Child was an OSS clerk in Southeast Asia, David was a librarian to the Foreign Service in Egypt. At this point, their culinary careers follow different paths. Child becomes the consummate interpreter and teacher of French cuisine while David becomes the critic and interpreter of French and Mediterranean cuisine to her English audience. Both held very strong opinions. Child tended to keep hers out of her writing, but David felt free to offer reasoned opinions on just about anything which crossed her path.
This volume should be a warning to journeyman writers everywhere that it is not wise to comment on the work of important writers, especially important writers whose work promises to be reprinted long after their death. Early in the book, David comments on some inaccuracies in writings on her work and career, and, I suspect, her criticisms of these mistakes will be read long after the original authors are forgotten, or, worse, remembered only for their misstatements about Ms. David.
This volume was published posthumously but with the selection of material done largely by the author shortly before her death, as a sequel to the volume `An Omelette and a Glass of Wine'. Most pieces are magazine articles comprised of an essay on some ingredient, followed by recipes on the same ingredient or subject. Like David's cookbooks, I read her articles on ingredients and recipes less to actually make the specific dishes and more to educate my thinking about food. One fine example is her essay on rosemary in which she complains about the overuse of this herb in many dishes and by many cuisines such as the Greek use with lamb. The following essay is a liberating discussion of dried herbs, pointing out that fresh herbs are simply not always better. Many herbs attain their best effect when dried.
I like to believe that John Thorne's fussiness with culinary nomenclature comes from, or at least is reinforced by Elizabeth David's insistence that you maintain some semblance of fidelity to the meaning of words, as when she exhorts us to limit the name Quiche Lorraine to a preparation with pastry shell, eggs, cream, and bacon. Cheese is simply not part of the paradigm. She adds to a warmly cordial reference to Child's `Mastering the Art of French Cooking' part of the blame for this linguistic larceny, as Child says the dish is very easy and gives license to improvise.
The variety of subjects is great and engaging, ranging from egg dishes to encounters with publishers, a rather arcane subject which I always find interesting, going back as far as my reading of H.L. Menchen's cordial connection to Alfred A. Knopf. David's relations with publishers was not as cordial. While the evidence that this book is collected from leftovers, they are almost universally leftovers which were originally of a very high quality and which have improved with age, as there are few culinary writers who can match David's turn of phrase and highly balanced sensibilities about ingredients and their use.
I would rank this volume high in value as a part of a culinary library.