May 5, 2020, by Lexi Earl

Elizabeth David on food and belonging: Keeping house during a lockdown

This post is written by Dr Richard Vytniorgu, Impact Research Fellow in the School of Cultures, Languages, and Area Studies.

The Challenge of Covid-19

For those of us who can, working from home has become the new normal, squeezing our entire lives into the four walls we call home. Inviting friends and family over for socialising has been banned, and even our diets may have changed due to the unavailability of certain kinds of food. As kitchen tables become desks and spare space is taken up with extra food supplies, ‘the hearth of the home’ is being radically re-purposed so that our homes, and being at home, are asked to do a lot more work for us than they previously did.

Before the lockdown, to speak of home may have tasted sweet or simply carried the savour of normalcy. Post-lockdown, the taste of belonging at home can be one of bitterness and sour resentment at the thing that has caused our homes to become our cells.

But I’ve been finding some comfort from the books of Elizabeth David (1913-1992) – perhaps one of Britain’s most famous food writers of the twentieth century – whom I’m currently researching. David appeals to me as a literary scholar interested in how literature and culture, and the people who mediate these things, create and transmit traditions across generations. These traditions, which can come from anywhere, can help foster a sense of belonging somewhere, even in times of difficulty.

Elizabeth David and Inheritance

David saw herself as a writer rather than a cook, but by 1989 she had come to see that food was really at the basis of everything, in the same way that the American M F K Fisher believed that to write about food was really to write about our need for security and love. My own approach to David is to see her as a writer fascinated by the inheritance of culture: to see food practices and recipes as forms of knowledge inscribed by tradition, which are received by others and thus inherited. And it’s this sense of having inherited something that contributes to our feeling of belonging somewhere.

I’m sure many of us only tend to think of inheritance in monetary terms. But we can inherit lots of things: DNA, some health conditions, tastes, religion, politics, interests, style, and many more. These things are passed to us, sometimes involuntarily but often freely given and freely received, and become an inheritance to the extent that ‘it lives in me’, as Roger Scruton has said in his meditation on belonging, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2012). For Elizabeth David, food, and especially cooking, formed a crucial part of a living inheritance at both the individual, personal level, and the national level as well. Her writing is also intensely autobiographical—not quite a ‘foodoir’, but nevertheless grounded in robust and sometimes painful personal experiences of belonging and the loss of belonging.

Keeping House

Of course, David didn’t live through Covid-19, but she did live through the Second World War, when she left the UK in 1939 to sail around the Mediterranean with her lover, Charles Gibson-Cowan. David narrowly escaped more prolonged incarceration in Italy, and eventually settled in Cairo for the rest of the war. But before she settled in Cairo, she and Gibson-Cowan took a tiny cottage on the island of Syros in Greece, and it was here that she really learnt to cook and to ‘keep house’—something immortalised in David’s biographical entries to her books which proudly tell us that ‘Mrs David lived and kept house in France, Italy, Greece, Egypt and India, as well as England’.

In 1940 Elizabeth and Charles arrived in Greece, but they had lost almost everything by then. And yet compared to British standards at the time, the couple had an abundance of food: eggs, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, aubergines, turnips, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, octopus, and chicken. While Charles taught English, Elizabeth pared back living and keeping house to their basics: the preparation of ‘honest, sincere, and simple’ cooking with what she had to hand, as she noted in French Country Cooking (p. 8).

In the volume of recipes which David wrote in 1947 in an attempt to remember what she cooked in the Mediterranean – A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) – she set down what she had learnt while keeping house in times of difficulty. The recipes are frequently ‘given’ by others, or else they are created from an understanding of regional customs and practices. Her basic method is to record the essentials of a dish and then adapt, in the process creating a living inheritance which truly lived in her because she cooked what she wrote. This process of transmission, of inheriting ways of preparing and eating food and then adding to the basics, enabled David to belong anywhere at precisely the moment she was forced to belong somewhere very restrictive.

But it was more than just recipes that David inherited; it was a way of thinking about and living with food. ‘Some sensible person’, she quipped in French Country Cooking (1951), ‘once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house’ (p. 23).

Many of us I’m sure, have resorted to clean-outs of various kinds during the lockdown, and our kitchens-cum-offices are no exception. We are looking for the ‘comforting and comfortable’ in these difficult times, chucking the clutter, but focusing on building up as we’re newly confronted with the somewhere of our homes. David tells us that ‘As time goes on you accumulate your own personal gadgets, things which graft themselves on to your life’ (p. 23).

As David discovered through her isolation at Syros, lots of things graft themselves on to our lives. They’ve been given to us by others and carried around with us because we’ve had no reason to discard them. They matter; they flow from us like tendrils which bring us in touch with others outside, out there.

Belonging in a Lockdown

But a lockdown prompts us to re-think how we keep house, and how we use our time and resources to build up a fine kitchen, whatever that looks like. How do we avoid becoming resentful at being shackled to somewhere, not free to roam anywhere?

The author in their kitchen

The only way we can pare down to the essentials in a moderately conciliatory rather than resentful way is to work out what already ‘lives in us’ of the anywhere, in our approach to food and the design of the spaces in which we prepare and eat it. What have we inherited? How can we revive and add to the attitudes, perspectives, and habits we received once from a familiar face that ‘flickers into focus’ again now that the noise of the world outside has quietened? Maybe this will help us to feel a little more as if our homes are places where we freely belong somewhere, even if only at mealtimes, in our kitchens, where we really can belong anywhere.

Posted in Food ResearchFood Stories