Wednesday, January 30, 2013


There was an article in the New York Times a couple of days back by Kate Murphy, with the headline “Between the Recipes, Scribbles Speak Volumes” which turned out to be an interesting piece about the marginalia that people write in cook books.

I think this is an interesting one.  I buy more than my fair share of used cookbooks and I really don’t mind a few annotations along the lines of “needs more lard” but occasionally you come across a book that looks as though somebody has actually dropped their lunch on the pages, and I find that kind of hard to deal with.  Pen and pencil marks OK, actually smears of old food, not so much.

Kate Murphy writes, “The cutting wit of the renowned British food writer Elizabeth David is evident in the marginalia of her cookbooks, now kept at the Guildhall Library in London. Her scribbles are on bits of paper (grocery receipts, bus tickets, postcards, Post-it notes) distributed throughout the texts.”

        Elizabeth David was one of those people who the older she got, the less she cared about what people thought of her, and it seems she hadn’t cared all that much in the first place.  I seem to remember some late TV appearances when she seemed a glorious old grotesque.  And obviously she didn’t hold back on her marginalia.

According to Kate Murphy, “In her copy of The Cooking of Italy (1969) by the American food writer Waverley Root, she wrote, ‘Waverley Root is a pitiful phony.’”  Which oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.

 And then, “Referring to a recipe for cold macaroni salad involving “tinned pears” in “Ulster Fare” (1945) by the Belfast Women’s Institute Club, Ms. David wrote, “Sounds just about the most revolting dish ever devised.”

And my first thought was that surely she must have eaten more revolting things than that: you could construct something similar in any chain restaurant with a salad bar.

But then a little research made me wonder if in fact Ms. Murphy had taken some of this info from a 2009 article by Tim Haywood in the Guardian, which in its online version comes with a partial, and perhaps mistaken, correction, thus: “A misprint meant that anybody essaying the macaroni salad recipe at the end of the piece below would have had even more grounds than the late Elizabeth David to detest this dish. As a reader wrote: "Try 'peas' instead of 'pears'. Better?"

Pears or peas: revolting or not.  You decide.

Incidentally, Tim Hayward is no slouch in the cutting wit department either, he writes in that article, “Now I should be quite clear from the outset that I've always been a little ambivalent about David. She famously moved food writing out of the dark didactic corners of domestic science and began to write beautifully and poetically about food as a sensual experience, but she also in her early career wrote unashamedly for the posh and focused attention away from British cuisine and on to Mediterranean food. I find it hard to read her work without enjoyment but it also defines a kind of ‘holidays-in-Provence’ middle-class elitism.”

Which ain’t bad at all

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