Okay, this headline is a lie. An Omelette And A Glass Of Wine is not technically a cookbook, though it’s about cooking and contains some recipes. Technically, it’s a collection of Elizabeth David’s food journalism, published between the late 1940s and the mid-’60s. But as far as books about cooking go, it’s a classic. Back in postwar Britain, when David first began writing about food for glossy magazines, ordinary people did not make a meal out of an omelet and a glass of wine. The Brits were still rationing things like eggs and also heat and electricity, and food snobs had declared that drinking wine with eggs was simply not done. Life was hard.
David, however, had seen the outside world and how beautiful food could be. As a teenager in the 1930s, she studied painting in Paris, and while she never considered herself anything more than a mediocre artist, she developed a fluency in French and an appreciation of French food. Later, she spent several years living abroad, mostly in the Greek islands and in Egypt (where she sailed from England on a small boat with a married lover, and wow is that a story). This was where she learned to cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients. This was a revelation to someone who had 1) been raised by rich people who considered it unseemly for a lady to know how to cook 2) in a country that was enamored with food that came in cans.
“What I found out when I returned to England to another five or six years of the awful dreary foods of rationing,” she wrote in one of the essays in An Omelette And A Glass Of Wine, “was that while my own standard of living in Egypt had perhaps not been very high, my food had always had some sort of life, colour, guts, stimulus; there had always been bite, flavour and inviting smells. These elements were totally absent from English meals.”
During one especially depressing rainy period in 1947 when David found herself stranded in a small, flooded village in the English countryside and desperately homesick for the Mediterranean, “I... started to work out an agonized craving for the sun and a furious revolt against that terrible cheerless, heartless food by writing down descriptions of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. Even to write words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced amusement. Later I came to realize that in the England of 1947, those were dirty words that I was putting down.”
The result was her first book, A Book Of Mediterranean Food, published in 1950.
The reason apricots, olives, lemons, etc. sounded like dirty words was because they were so rare in 1947 England that they might as well have been some exotic form of pornography. At least the way David tells it. And hey, who am I to doubt someone who was actually there? Even if this emphasis on the badness is intended to contrast what came next: a revolution in cooking ignited by none other than A Book Of Mediterranean Food and its successors, French Country Cooking, French Provincial Cooking, Italian Food, and Summer Cooking. If not for Elizabeth David, we would not have had Julia Child, Nigel Slater, Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, and every other chef and home cook who waxes poetic about ripe tomatoes and freshly squeezed lemons and basil from their own garden. (Yes, that includes me.)
Before David intervened, Brits were dousing their lettuce in something called salad cream instead of vinaigrette, and they still believed mayonnaise was, as David described it, “a cooked custard-type sauce made of flour, milk, eggs, and a very high proportion of vinegar.” I can’t even imagine what this would have tasted like, and now I’m almost tempted to dig up the 1906 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book Of Household Management, which David blames for unleashing this abomination upon the world, just to find out. But also: France, birthplace of mayonnaise, was just across the Channel! Escoffier was cooking in London! Surely the same people who bragged that the sun never set on their mighty empire could travel a few hundred miles, or even venture into the kitchen of the Savoy Hotel, to learn how to whip eggs and olive oil together?
But the Brits read and learned, and their grocers began importing olive oil for purposes other than removing earwax so they had decent mayonnaise again, and then the white Brits learned that spicy food wouldn’t ruin them, and the reputation of British food perked up tremendously.
Some critics have argued that this change in British food would have happened anyway. Rationing came to an end independent of Elizabeth David, and decent food became more readily available. Shipping and storage improved: tomatoes, lemons, and olives were no longer exotic treats but things you could find in the supermarket, even in winter. Other Brits had started traveling throughout Europe and sharing news about the fab food there in magazines and cookbooks, though, as the scholar Nicola Humble points out in her book Culinary Pleasures: Cook Books and the Transformation of British Food, David was a better writer than most of them and also had been more deeply immersed in the cultures about which she wrote. It probably also didn’t hurt that David’s essays appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, House & Garden, and British Vogue, not the British equivalent of Family Circle, and her books were reviewed in the top London newspapers and deemed brilliant: all this gave her work an aura of authority and class. As those sorts of magazines and newspapers claim today, it was “aspirational.” To read Elizabeth David and, even better, have conspicuously oil-stained paperback copies of her books in your kitchen, was a sign that you were a gastronome of taste and distinction. You were not the sort of barbarian that would serve up a Jell-O salad at a dinner party!
Today, though, it’s a bit hard to read An Omelette And A Glass Of Wine all at once. God knows I tried, one quiet evening at home, curled up in bed with my dog. After about 25 pages, I wanted to throw it across the room. Elizabeth David, concentrated in essay form, is a lot. I suppose she couldn’t help it: she grew up in a 300-year-old manor house and went to boarding schools and had relatives who were actual nobility, and that kind of puts its stamp on a person, especially if that person grew up in England before World War II when social class was a national obsession, even if she does try to rebel by becoming an actress and sailing off in a boat with a lover and learning how to cook from a Sudanese chef named Suleiman. But this all manifests in a tone of authority and even rigidity: everything is just as Elizabeth David says, her judgments are always correct, and we will accept no arguments. (Think of that as a royal “we,” by the way.) The introduction to the book is filled with a lot of score-settling and criticism of editors who wouldn’t let her write the way she wanted, and it was all so petty and irrelevant now that I admit I skipped ahead.
This authority manifests itself in the recipes. Like a lot of other cookbook writers from the early 20th century, David assumes her readers already know how to cook (and likely they either really did or they had someone to do the cooking for them) and that when she writes something like, “bake in a slow oven for an hour or two,” they will know exactly what she means. There is none of the encouraging “I know this is challenging, but you can do it and it will be delicious” hand-holding that you get from modern recipe writers. David swore that she meticulously tested everything, but some of her latter-day readers aren’t quite so sure. In any case, she was much more interested in evoking the atmosphere in which she first discovered those dishes—“a small seashore on an Aegean island,” “a little white house in the almond and lemon country of South-Eastern Spain where I stayed last summer”—than teaching her readers how to recreate them precisely in an English kitchen, probably because she knew that this was impossible. The ingredients would be wrong, and there would be no sun or sand.
There are a few other things that have made her writing age badly. The first is that, paradoxically, she was so successful that all the measures she advocates for now seem like commonplaces. Of course we shouldn’t use flour to thicken mayonnaise! Of course we should cook with real olive oil and real lemons, and of course fresh vegetables and seafood taste better than canned, and of course food should be enjoyable, not punitive! And it’s no longer considered daring to serve spinach pie or ratatouille at a dinner party. Mediterranean food has become so common, basic even, that it’s hard to imagine living without it. (What would lazy people do without pizza?) The second thing is that the French food she loved so much has fallen out of fashion. There is so much other food to try! And how is it that David lived in India for two years and never embraced curry?
But An Omelette And A Glass Of Wine becomes much more tolerable if you pick it up and leaf through it casually, an essay or even a few paragraphs at a time. David knew so much! (When she lived in Cairo, she worked as a librarian.) Flip to a random page and you’ll learn about the history of the tomato. Flip again and you’ll learn about the proper way to make fondue (and also David’s opinions about cheese strings, which, I have to say, are contrary to my own). Or the elaborate banquets of Edwardian London. After a long afternoon of reading the book at random, I started to feel fond of her. I began to wish that I, too, could go to that Aegean seashore or that white house in southeastern Spain.
In her honor, I made myself an omelet for dinner, following the recipe laid out in the book. In addition to eggs, cream, and pepper, it calls for finely grated Parmesan and Gruyere chopped into small dice. In my head, I told her, “But I like gouda better!” and she told me to pull up my socks and stop whining because Gruyere is obviously the more appropriate choice. The omelet wasn’t difficult to make. She didn’t tell me how hot the stove should be, so it took longer than she said it would, and the Gruyere didn’t melt completely, but no damage done. I also didn’t eat it with a glass of wine because I didn’t have any. But if you do, David says it should be white: “a deliciously scented Alsatian Traminer or a white burgundy such as the lovely Meursault-Genevrières of 1955, or a Loire wine, perhaps Sancerre or a Pouilly Fume.” (And do you see what I mean? Even if she was bluffing, the woman gave the impression of truly knowing her shit.)
I took my omelet outside to my back porch. It was a clear and lovely late-summer evening, perfect for eating outside, which I hoped would create enough of an atmosphere of casual luxury and ease that it wouldn’t be spoiled by lack of wine. As I ate, I reread David’s description of a perfect omelet:
What one wants is the taste of the fresh eggs and the fresh butter and, visually, a soft bright golden roll plump and spilling out a little at the edges. It should not be a busy, important urban dish but something gentle and pastoral, with the clean scent of the dairy, the kitchen garden, the basket of early morning mushrooms or the sharp tang of freshly picked herbs, sorrel, chives, tarragon.
My omelet wasn’t bad, but it certainly didn’t measure up to that. It didn’t conjure up any pastoral imagery for me, even though I was eating it outdoors, in the presence of the pots of droopy herbs and tomatoes I’ve been attempting to grow all summer. This made me sad. Maybe that’s the problem with the best food writing: it conjures up something so perfect that nothing in real life could ever possibly compare. It just sets you up for disappointment. Or maybe that’s where writers like Elizabeth David come in: they give you imaginary meals to dream over.