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Elizabeth David, melancholy’s muse

Posted in books by birdmaneating on January 4, 2009
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Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David, 1913–1992

 

 

Roses are things which Christmas is not a bed of.  —Ogden Nash, quoted in Elizabeth David’s Christmas.

Look at the jacket photo at the back of Elizabeth David’s Christmas (edited by Jill Norman, 2008: David R. Godine) to catch a whiff of the late English food writer’s appeal, if not her genius. That’s right: She looks frowzy—drunk, frankly—posed at the huge table in her densely cluttered London kitchen, a caricature of the sloppy pubfly. Enormous head hoisted onto her arm, mad grin exposing poor teeth, eyebrows pencilled in at angles both glamorous and a little giddy.

It’s a portrait at odds with the jacket’s front, all sticky-mint green, spangled with nauseatingly cozy line drawings: a roasted turkey, plum pudding, even an angel, for god’s sake, blowing a damn trumpet. But even writing about Christmas (the book’s a collection of David’s published writings about Christmas, with extended quotes she’d collected before her death, and a few original introductory pieces) David is sensible, canny. And anything but sentimental.

It’s clear she hated Christmas—the Anglo-American Christmas of sickeningly rich foods and forced family eating. The book is a plea for sense, a manual of sanity from a woman who, in a way, was all the things cozy drawings of mince pies and holly sprigs are not: David struggled through difficult relationships with men, never spawned kids, failed to be conventionally domestic. The searingly honest  woman of the jacket portrait, whose food writing simply ignored the chirpy, service-journalism, home-ec template of the first three decades she was active, starting in the late 1940s.

Here’s an excerpt from the book, opening sentence of a piece that appeared in Vogue in 1959: 

If I had my way—and I shan’t—my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.

You go, Mrs. David. 

The impression you get from Elizabeth David’s Christmas is one of simple comforts that resist—but also, in a way, express—the melancholy of the season: a soup of lentils and pheasant, a dessert of apples cooked slowly in butter, jerusalem artichokes cooked with cream. They’re the recipe equivalents of the simultaneously sad and joyful little tracks the Vince Guaraldi Trio laid down in 1965 for A Charlie Brown Christmas

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright—except when they don’t, and all  you want is to get quietly sloshed, alone, in bed.   —John Birdsall

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