Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who is Elizabeth David, and why will she not leave me alone?


 In London Rudolf Nureyev said    I should live with a dancer,
 which was the only sane ad-
 vice I received until Eliz-
 abeth David advised me to
 have another glass of white
 wine. 'Oh, dear,' she said,
 'oh dear,' her voice trailing
 off into memories of when
 she was young and beautiful.

Accessing that abscess of auto-
biography which is the chronic
nuisance of any essayist's dai-
ly stretch among the pillows of
his pride, is something we are
all taught to undertake before
the dawn in dreams of harmless
consequence, so that if we're
seized by some shading of a
subject in the light, our sense
can at least be attributed to
observation more than vanity.

Yet it was before dawn, when
I awakened to the next chapter
of post-surgical tingling in the
affected extremity, as if under
the auspices of Mickey Mantle  
in batting practice, that a
jaunt to the aspirin cabinet
(did I just 'practice medi-
cine'? - didn't mean to ..)
found me passing a treacherous-
ly exposed copy of An Omelette 
and a Glass of Wine, whence I 
loitered in greater confidence
of my inconvenience's remission.

Just why my confidence had been
so adjusted, would involve that
resort to autobiography which
sets a low example for an English
dog, and must on all accounts be
suspended just now in aid of some
peace and quiet. But that a plate
of chicken livers and pasta, un-
der her mentorship, promises a
more thorough release from the
batting cage of bypass memories
than a dusty tablet of anything,
is not a proposition to challenge,
very much, a gentleman's morals.
And Mrs David will do this to me, 
all the time. I suppose it has to
do with her having ministered to 
an island people, recovering from 
the dreary diet of war, that she
so snags the soul in search of
that arid luxury which aspirin
represents, with the ethereal ar-
omatics of gustatory simplicity.

A terrible vulnerability of the
nostrils, to the slightest devia-
tion from their suspension in the
conduct of sleep, has been noted
before in the childhood sensation
of bacon's being rendered at the
dawn; and with what really very
naughty canniness do we find our
Florence Nightingale of the kit-
chen infusing her chicken livers 
with the even earthier extrac-
tions of coppa, to lend justice
to our rising from our bed. It's
enough to induce a fellow to lose
his trust in pain, to find him-
self grating a lemon for this
nostrum, instead of hacking and
gnawing at the childproof cap of 
his prescription. 

Reflecting, thus, we draw near
to the secret of Mrs David's
genius for our rehabilitation.
Her stuff tastes better. Had I,
in the bluntness and breadth of
this abrupt generalisation, in-
tended an offense to the prac-
tice of medicine, I would cer-
tainly have added that her in-
gredients are more compatible
with wine; but we all respect
how even the peaceablest por-
tion of alcohol and the blith-
est opinion represent a mix to 
be abjured unless necessary, 
say, to do justice to Liebling 
or Benchley - to name but two
of her naturalest janissaries.

Shall I, then, in the hoary
traditions of the blogging of
medicine, haul out a telephone 
to illustrate Sabatier's dia-
phanous deliverance of one veil
after another of the ham from
its mold, or the santoku's dice
of the garlic? I think not. The
biography of a nostrum is the
surer guide to its preparation,
than any chapter and verse of
measure or technique; and with
this plate Mrs David finds her-
self prefiguring the cherish-
ing of her sources as her guide, 
that we recognise in the ebul-
lient Gabrielle Hamilton, each 
of them unearthing a collation 
of bliss from the treasures of 
the day, in a mountain relais 
in Italy with no name and no 
telephone, no menu and no 
maître d'hôtel.

It's here, I think, where I'd
like to rest the aspiration to
impart a happy bit of news in
the entry of the day, taking
care to eschew the singe of
autobiography. The domicile 
of this composition is awash 
in the literature of amazingly
sweet-spirited people who have
ideas about what one could eat.
Just awash. That is why it strikes
me as so notable, that the ter-
ribly wonderful Mrs David should
have found something of a spon-
taneous exponent in the original
yet wholly generous genius of a
another irresistible lady in her
line, the proprietress of Prune,
a place resembling a restaurant
as little as possible, consistent
with compliance with law. They
write and they give from the ex-
perience of discovery, first of

And so what one does, en route
to the medicine chest in the mid-
dle of the night, is to modulate
that trek with the underlying
reason for getting well, which
has remarkably to do with living
well. For such things not merely
were chicken livers and pasta in-
vented, but those slopes of orig-
inal context for their enjoyment.
Before one can dine, one comes 
to appreciate the walk that con-
ceives of that repast in nature.
Do you know, we participate in
that sphere even more deeply than
we do in consumption? 

Jeremiah Tower
California Dish
  What I saw (and cooked)
  at the American culinary
Free Press, 2003©

Elizabeth David
An Omelette and
  a Glass of Wine
  Giovanna, pp. 115-117
The Globe Pequot Press, 1997©

Gabrielle Hamilton
Blood, Bones & Butter
  The Inadvertent Education
  of a Reluctant Chef
Random House, 2011©


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