Some time ago, writing about Elizabeth David and Julia Child, I cheerfully said of the former
“I would bet a good bit that she had never cooked most of those recipes, let alone tested them. Not that this worries me because recipe testing in most cases (not all) is vastly overrated. But someday a scholar is going to locate the origins of all those recipes in French cookbooks.”
Now in this video, Jill Norman, Elizabeth David’s editor and author in her own right, describes how Elizabeth David prepared certain dishes at successive lunches, trying them out on her friends. When she had achieved a version she liked, whatever the opinion of her friends, that was the one that went in the manuscript. And the friends all received a typed copy of the final version, a lovely gesture.
Eat your words, Rachel.
Well, yes, I’ll eat my words.
But I also maintain that David’s attitude to trying out dishes differed in an important way from contemporary recipe testing.
Take French Provincial Cooking as an example. Many of the recipes are direct, acknowledged quotations from French cookbooks, with no indication of further modification. Others are acknowledged summaries of French authors, Madame Sainte-Ange, for example.
Further, the recipes rely on the judgment of the cook rather than measurements down to the last ounce. Here’s one picked at random for an Alsatian onion and cream tart (p. 284).
For the filling: 1-1/2 lb. onion, the yolks of 3 eggs, a good 1/4 pint of thick cream, seasonings including nutmeg and plenty of milled pepper, butter and oil for cooking the onions.
That wouldn’t pass muster now.
In short, David never assumes uniformity, whether of diner’s tastes, availability of ingredients, nature of ingredients, or availability of utensils, cookware, or of cooking equipment. She writes her recipes to suggest the limits within which a cook can explore, not as a template to be reproduced.
I remember when I was a judge for a major cookbook prize. Boxes of books would arrive at my house situated at 7000 feet up on the central plateau of Mexico. Fulfilling my obligation to test at least two recipes from each finalist was a matter of intuiting from the recipe what the author was aiming at and trying to recreate it under very difficult circumstances.
I once tried to explain this to colleagues in the organization. ”You shouldn’t have been a judge,” they said angrily.
Sorry, no, I think I should. Even within the boundaries of the United States, altitudes vary, water varies, flour varies, availability of produce varies. Templates and strict copying are not what is required but mutual trust between author and reader.
At least that’s how I look at it.