Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Elizabeth David

Episode Summary

Elizabeth David (1913-1992) was a British culinary writer who revolutionized British cooking.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

In case you’re just tuning in, here’s the deal. Every weekday we’re telling the stories of women from throughout history and around the world who you may not know about, but definitely should. Each month is themed and this month we’re talking about Tastemakers, women who accomplished incredible feats in the culinary arts.  

Today’s tastemaker revolutionized British cooking. She studied a variety of cultural and artistic subjects, traveled the world, and fled war. We’re talking about the unforgettable Elizabeth David.

Elizabeth Gwynne was born on December 26th, 1913, near Sussex in England. She was the second of four daughters in a wealthy family, which had amassed a fortune from the engineering and coal mining industries. When she was 10 years old, Elizabeth’s father passed away. He was 51.

Elizabeth didn't learn anything about cooking in her childhood. At that time, that knowledge was reserved for personal chefs and kitchen workers who served the upper class. 

Elizabeth had shown some signs of artistic abilities and in 1930, her mother sent her to Paris to study painting. There, she studied history, literature and architecture. She also lived with a food-loving Parisian family who made sure to further inspire her adoration of French cuisine. Elizabeth gained a love for the culture and language of the country.

In a 1960 book, Elizabeth recalled that the French family had instilled in her, "the taste for a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before."

After Paris, Elizabeth spent a year studying German in Munich before heading back to England in 1932. In 1933, she joined an Oxford acting company and moved to the open air theater in Regent’s Park. 

With money from a generous 21st birthday gift, she fully equipped her new residence's kitchen, bent on learning to cook. At that point, she knew so little about cooking that a colleague reportedly had to teach her how to make tea.

But, with a cookbook given to her by her mother, Elizabeth started to learn. Around the same time, she met a free-spirited actor named Charles Gibson Cowan and the two began an affair.

In 1939, Elizabeth and Charles bought a small boat and planned to sail it to Greece. They didn't get very far before the outbreak of World War II so they were forced  to stay in the city of Antibes. It was there that Elizabeth met the writer Norman Douglas, who would become her writing mentor.

When Elizabeth and Charles left Antibes in 1940, they were caught in Italy and detained for being suspected spies. By the time they were released, they had lost almost all of their possessions -- including Elizabeth's prized recipe list.

The pair found work in Greece until the country was invaded by the Germans in 1941. They escaped and fled to Egypt. Elizabeth and Charles split up soon after. 

Three years later, Elizabeth married a British officer named Anthony David. She followed him from Egypt to a new posting in India in 1946. After just six months she returned at last to England.

With her vast array of cultural knowledge, Elizabeth was disappointed with British cuisine. Spurred by encouragement from friends, she wrote about the topic and starting in 1949, published a series of articles in Harper's Bazaar.. A year later, the articles were published together in a work entitled, A Book of Mediterranean Food. Elizabeth went on to write more books about French cooking, Italian cooking, and other foreign dishes.

In 1963, at age 49, Elizabeth suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. This may have been the result of heavy drinking, sleeping pill use, and overwork. She kept the  event a secret to preserve her reputation. The hemorrhage caused a blow to her confidence -- and to her senses. She temporarily lost her sense of taste.

In 1965, she opened Elizabeth David Ltd, a shop that sold kitchen equipment, some of which was otherwise sold exclusively in France. As the years passed, she focused more and more on her work in the shop.

Twelve years after her store’s founding, in 1977, Elizabeth was injured in a car accident, fracturing several  bones. Several years later, her sister passed away, sending Elizabeth into a depression.

In 1992, Elizabeth suffered two strokes within days. She died at the age of 78.

Elizabeth David was more than a simple food writer. She revolutionized post-war British cuisine, and mixed her prose with a sense of history and culture unlike anyone before her. Many scholars agree that she forever changed the way the English cook.

As always, we’re taking a break for the weekend. Tune in on Monday for  the story of another groundbreaking tastemaker!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you on Monday!