Elizabeth David was born into a upper-class family and pursued a rebellious and bohemian life as a student of art and then an actress in Paris, before running off with a married man to Greece and then settling in Cairo, where she worked for the British government. After the Second World War, she returned to England, where she was shocked by poor food into writing first articles, then books on Meditteranean cooking. A Book of Mediterranean Food was published in 1950, inspiring a cookery revolution, bringing new flavours and ingredients to the drab, post-war British diet. Over the next few years, David was to become a major influence on British cooking, yet her classic cookery books show little of the colourful personality behind the public persona. Artermis Cooper, in this refreshing biography, reveals an adventurous and uncompromising personality - a woman with a passion for food, life and men. This is the whole story: of her strong friendships, her failed marriage, tempestuous affairs and the greatest love of her life, told with extensive refererence to David's private papers and letters. 'In this wonderful and creative book, Cooper has brought David to life . . . she not only writes like an angel, but has done her research with great skill and obvious enjoyment.' Derek Cooper, Sunday Times 'Engagingly well-written, thoroughly researched and documented. One of the delights of Artemis Cooper's book is that it makes you go back, time and again, to the source. And suddenly I will find that I have whiled away the afternoon re-reading, for the sheer pleasure of it, half of Spices or An Omlette and a Glass of Wine.' Frances Bissell, The Times 'Fluent, engaging and astonishingly readable.' Clarissa Dickson Wright, Mail on Sunday 'Artemis Cooper is skilled and wise enough to handle the contradictory sides of David's character without being either censorious or sensational.' Arabella Boxer, The Times Literary Supplement
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Although Elizabeth David was the very opposite of a recluse, she was famously reluctant to divulge information about herself to her readers, claiming that everything that needed to be said could be found in her books. In light of Artemis Cooper's Writing at the Kitchen Table, this assertion looks more doubtful than ever: the more that is revealed about David, the more interesting she becomes. Cooper is the "authorized" biographer, writing with access to a mass of personal papers, but this is no hagiography. Mrs. David, crisply but sympathetically drawn in these pages, was a fascinating egotist, beautiful with a hard sensuality, generous but capable of furious rages and lasting grudges. She learned a valuable lesson in self-centeredness from the quintessentially louche Norman Douglas, who in many ways seems to have been a key influence. Clearly she was not exactly a nice person, although it is encouraging (and not entirely surprising) to discover she had a really dirty laugh--more of a cackle, it appears.
The story is well told: the patrician background she flouted (but not too much); the flight from England, grayness, and failure; the rackety wartime years spent knocking around the Mediterranean in the company of high bohemians such as Lawrence Durrell; the marriage of convenience in Cairo that gave her the status of a married woman but was soon abandoned; the lovers; the return to London and the start of a dazzling writing career; the fame and the status; the shop; the stroke that affected both palate and libido; the troubled later years. On none of this need she be judged, and Cooper does not. In a sense, David was right. The best of her is in the writing--namely, in her precise, attentive, sensual appreciation of food and cooking. She was above all an exquisitely skillful cook, whose influence, though mostly indirect, has been incalculable. It's all the more moving, then, to learn at her funeral, "among the wreaths and baskets of flowers, and the violets she loved, someone had left a loaf of bread and a bunch of herbs tied up in brown paper." --Robin DavidsonAbout the Author:
Artemis Cooper is the author of Cairo in the War 1939-1945 and Paris after the Liberation (which she cowrote with her husband, Antony Beevor). They have two children and live in London.
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