I was looking through an Elizabeth David cooking book the other day. My brother gave these Penguin paperbacks to me in the early ‘70s. They were to improve me as a cook, but also I suspect as a person.
What struck me today was not only the number of wonderful – and simple – recipes there are in the books (I tend to go back and only use old favourites) – but also the beautiful images.
This made me think of how eagerly we ‘read’ the images back in the early 1970s. There wasn’t the vast amount of ‘lifestyle’ there is now. These books were like little passports into a dazzling foreign world.
Of course Elizabeth David is a tremendous writer. Her prose is evocative but exact (more exact in fact than a lot of her recipes.) But what seemed wonderful in the early 1970s – when most people were revelling in avocado-shaded fridges, orange plastic lampshades and sinking into a beanbag – was the window she opened to another way of doing things.
Pakeha life in NZ at that time was fiercely egalitarian and to ‘skite’ – to be different – was to invite a swift clip round the ear, a boot up the bum and if you were unlucky, a punch in the face in the street.
One day at university we took a white linen tablecloth into the university cafeteria, whatever silver cutlery we could muster and a silver candlestick. (I can’t remember what we ate.)
It was by way of ‘setting an example’ a la Lady Gaga.
It all seemed terribly new.
These cook books became preferred reading matter for a coterie of friends. We all studied them as you study a coat you might want to copy, which seems intriguingly – complexly – simple.
In time some of these friends went on to be well known cooks. One of them is on Masterchef at the moment.
In one way the books did make me a better person. I learnt never to be lonely. At your lowest you can always turn out a nice meal for yourself – a glass of wine in a pleasant glass, a napkin, fresh beans say, the pleasure of what’s in season. Serve it on a pleasing plate. It’s a form of self respect.
But it was only when looking at these beautiful drawings – and then around our house – I realised how quietly influential these images had been.
Much, much later I found out Elizabeth David’s own kitchen was tiny, quite grotty and not at all ‘stylish’ in the accepted sense of the word. These days – especially since straight men realised it wasn’t cissy to cook – kitchens have become these vast show palaces.
But someone like Elizabeth David made wonderful meals in a tiny basement kitchen with everything jammed in. It’s not ideal. And somehow the kitchen we’ve ended up with here is small. It has a beautiful bench of kauri and a butler’s sink about which I have mixed feelings. (It needs a butler to keep it looking good.)
When a lifestyle magazine managed to poke its head into our lives, the one comment they made on the kitchen was faintly disapproving. The stove, they noticed, was a budget one. Sorry about that. And when Villa came out it made the mistake of saying the kitchen was original to the house.
Maybe this is the art of decorating. It’s making things look like they could have been there forever. It was actually designed by Douglas and built by his friend, Stephen Salt.
But what was guiding us all were those subconscious images we’d gained from Elizabeth David’s cooking books.
This is my kind of dream kitchen.