The Empress of Ice Cream

Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices

by Elizabeth David, edited by Jill Norman
Viking, 413 pp., $24.95

Elizabeth David’s first cookbooks burst upon a Britain newly delivered from wartime rationing. To that shell-shocked and hungry and country her words must have been a balm, as in this preface to A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), her very first:

With this selection…of Mediterranean dishes, I hope to give some idea of the lovely cookery of those regions to people who do not already know them, and to stir the memories of those who have eaten this food on its native shores, and who would like sometimes to bring a flavor of those blessed lands of sun and sea and olive trees into their English kitchens.1

Often those first English readers could only read her books and day-dream, but gradually their privations disappeared, and then Mediterranean Food could take its rightful place on their kitchen bookshelves, joined by French Country Cooking (1951) and Italian Food (1954). By 1960, when French Provincial Cooking threw its mighty heft against the drab tyranny of “meat and two veg,” the author’s characteristic mix of tart practicality and deep erudition had already begun to work its changes on the English palate. In the late 1980s, David, by that time a living English institution, C.B.E., Chevalier du Mérite Agricole, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, embarked on a study that would leave behind the anecdotal world of recipes for a sustained historical study. Although she did not live to see its completion, her extensive drafts for the work have now been edited (by Jill Norman) and published under the title Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices.

Distributed in the United States at the height of the unprecedentedly hot summer of 1995, Harvest of the Cold Months seemed to promise a light refreshment, a kind of intellectual sorbet to reawaken its readers’ wilting spirits. But Elizabeth David was never that kind of writer. Food and its history have long been the domain of keenly intelligent, physically imposing, mature women—it is no accident that Juno, their archetype, was the goddess of memory as well as domestic virtue, and that any encounter with Juno was a collision with pure force rather than an Arcadian romp in the woods. A philosophical take on cooking requires the magisterial participation of both mind and hand, not to mention a ruthless command of quality and an artful feeling for detail, tactile as well as spiritual, an assemblage of skills that comes neither easily nor early in life. For the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth David, studying French history and literature at the Sorbonne while boarding with a terrifyingly greedy French family, her hosts’ all-consuming preoccupation with what they ate only gradually transformed her existence. Eventually, however, through the lens of her sharp English wit, their single-minded obsession with food became her particular passion, too. Yet her metamorphosis into a culinary writer never dulled her initial taste for pure research. It is the thoughtfulness and depth of her cookbooks that have made them such enduring…

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