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The Devil Who Cooked Like an Angel

September 06, 2000|RUSS PARSONS

Elizabeth David, British food scholar Alan Davidson once remarked, "is a many-sided woman. And it's hard to be on good terms with all sides of her at once." Artemis Cooper's extraordinary new biography, "Writing at the Kitchen Table" (Ecco Press, $27.50), makes that assessment seem mild, perhaps even loving.

There is no way around it: David, who died in 1992 at age 79, was one of the more troubled goddesses in the foodie pantheon. In fact, she was a spiteful witch. If it were not for her work, it seems likely she would have ended up as one of those solitary old ladies you see on buses, snarling angrily to themselves.

Of course, that's a little like saying that if it were not for the mountains, Colorado would be Kansas. David is one of the handful of people--Julia Child and James Beard being the others--who have changed the way we look at food.

The parallel to Child is interesting. David's romantic evocation of French and Italian cooking intoxicated the British to the same extent that Child's matter-of-fact, intensely practical appreciation of French cuisine got to Americans.

Child could devote pages to perfectly realized, infinitely detailed descriptions of how to bake a loaf of French bread. David's gift was writing the three telling paragraphs that not only gave you the crucial points of technique but also made you want to bake it in the first place.

That's true of the first half of her career, anyway, and the five books published from 1950 to the mid-1960s that focus on the Mediterranean. To a war-ravaged and ration-starved England, they were like winter sunshine.

Then, her reputation secured, she made an abrupt career change. Her final three books--"Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen," "English Bread and Yeast Cookery" and "Harvest of the Cold Months"--are intensely scholarly historical works. (The wonderful "An Omelette and a Glass of Wine," which was published during the same period, is a collection of her journalism and actually serves as a bit of a bridge between the two stages.)

That's the public David--beautifully composed, warm, endlessly fascinating. The private person Cooper reveals was quite different. It's not much of an overstatement to say that there doesn't seem to be a single relationship in her long life that she didn't poison at least once. Those who were closest to her--her family and her many, many lovers--seemed to be in for multiple doses (one chapter is titled "Friends, Editors and Other Enemies").

Consider her husband, Tony, a diffident Englishman she married on the rebound from a disastrous wartime love affair (after her lover lost both of his legs in battle, she dumped him). She quickly grew bored with married life and proceeded to have affairs not only with her husband's friends but also with her friends' husbands. Finally, Tony decided he'd be happier living on another continent.

That both sides of David are equally presented and actually end up becoming a comprehensible whole is a credit to Cooper's ability as a biographer. She never shrinks from describing David's monstrous side, nor does she let that distract her from the writer's immeasurable contributions.

In the end, we wind up grateful not only for David's work but also for those around her who let her live long enough to produce it.

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