Elizabeth David CBE (December 26, 1913 - May 22, 1992) was a pre-eminent British cookery writer of the mid 20th century.
David is considered responsible for bringing French and Italian cooking into the British home (along with now ubiquitous items such as olive oil and the courgette). In a Britain worn down by post-war rationing and dull food, she celebrated the regional and rural dishes of the Mediterranean rather than the fussier food of the gourmands and aristocrats. David's style is characterised by terse descriptions of the recipes themselves, accompanied by detailed descriptions of their context and historical background, and often laced with anecdotal asides. She was often scathing of bad food, including much of the food of England that she and her readers had grown up with.
Born Elizabeth Gwynne, she was of mixed English and Irish ancestry, and came from a rather grand background, growing up in the 17th century Sussex manor house, Wootton Manor with three sisters. Her parents were Rupert Gwynne, Conservative MP for Eastbourne, and the Hon. Stella Ridley who came from a distinguished Northumberland family. Her uncle, Roland Gwynne, later became Mayor of Eastbourne and may have been a lover of suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams.
She studied at the Sorbonne, living with a French family for two years, which led to a love of France and of food. At the age of 19, she was given her first cookery book, The Gentle Art of Cookery by Hilda Leyel, who wrote of her love with the food of the East. "If I had been given a standard Mrs Beeton instead of Mrs Leyel's wonderful recipes," she said, "I would probably never have learned to cook."
Gwynne had an adventurous early life, leaving home to become an actress. She left England in 1939, when she was twenty-five, and bought a boat with her married lover Charles Gibson-Cowan intending to travel around the Mediterranean. The onset of World War II interrupted this plan, and they had to flee the German occupation of France. They left Antibes for Corsica and then on to Italy where the boat was impounded, they having arrived on the day Italy declared war on Britain. They were eventually deported to Greece, then made their way to the Greek island of Syros living there for a period, where she learnt about Greek food and spent time with high bohemians such as Lawrence Durrell. When the Germans invaded Greece they managed to flee to Crete where they were rescued by the British and evacuated to Egypt, where she lived firstly in Alexandria and eventually in Cairo. There Gwynne started work for the Ministry of Information, split from Gibson-Cowan, and eventually took on a marriage of convenience to Lieutenant-Colonel Tony David; this gave her a measure of respectability but David was a man whom she did not ultimately respect, and their relationship ended soon after an eight month posting in India. She had many lovers in ensuing years.
On her return to London in 1946, David began to write cooking articles and in 1949 the publisher John Lehmann offered her a hundred-pound advance for Mediterranean Food, the start of a dazzling writing career. David spent eight months researching Italian food in Venice, Tuscany and Capri. This resulted in Italian Food in 1954, with illustrations by Renato Guttuso, which was famously described by Evelyn Waugh in the Sunday Times as one of the two books which had given him the most pleasure that year.
Many of the ingredients were unknown in England when the books were first published, and David had to suggest looking for olive oil in pharmacies where it was sold for treating earache. Within a decade, ingredients such as eggplants, saffron and pasta began to appear in shops, thanks in no small part to David's books. David gained fame, respect and high status and advised many chefs and companies. In November 1965, she opened her own shop devoted to cookery in Pimlico, London. She wrote articles for Vogue magazine, one of the first in the genre of food-travel.
In 1963, when she was 49, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, possibly related to her heavy drinking. Although she recovered, it affected her sense of taste and her libido.
David won the Glenfiddich Writer of the Year award for English Bread and Yeast Cookery. She was also awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Essex and Bristol, and the award of a Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite Agricole. However, the honour that most pleased her was being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 in recognition of her skills as a writer. In 1986 she was awarded a CBE.
She died in 1992 at her Chelsea home, where she had lived for forty years.