In 1970, our first year in London, I came across the cookbooks of Elizabeth David, available in inexpensive Penguin paperbacks. As she did for a generation of English cooks, David became my guide to a new world of food and a new way to cook. You can read my tale of discovering this treasure in How I Learned To Cook, An Artist’s Life. I was excited to share her books with my sister, Mimi, and sent her one of my favorites, Summer Cooking. Here is Mimi’s take on that formative time with Ms. David.
Summer Cooking ─ Mimi Hedl
Back in 1971, freshly returned from Rio de Janeiro and living with Cindy Carlisle in Boulder near the foothills, my first husband (out of two) and I tried to figure out what to do next. One day a package arrived from England. That was exciting in itself, a package from England, but coming from Barbara, I knew it would be special. All these years later Summer Cooking, by Elizabeth David, has never failed me. As a very unformed 24 year old, this book opened my eyes. I began to see food as more than nourishment, preparing food as an art, especially when some of it came from my own garden.
I remember devouring every word in this book, so unlike the Betty Crocker cook book our mother raised us on. Elizabeth David gave a history of foods, where they came from, how they’ve been used, and little stories that enhanced the recipes. Reading her words I felt part of a larger world.
Barbara placed asterisks by special recipes. So I tried Salad Espagnole for my maiden voyage into a new way of cooking. So simple, so few ingredients, but absolute perfection and wonderful picnic food. It called for shallots, not easily found back then, so I decided I had to grow them. Mayonnaise challenged me. After two or three attempts, the mayonnaise came together as it should, firm and beautiful in its freshness. I felt the triumph of a challenge met. Aioli would soon follow.
Barbara’s few words at the beginning of the book, motherly, and a bit stand-offish, (she hadn’t decided about me as her younger, somewhat pesky sister), have stayed with me all these years. “Most things don’t need exact-ness.” Her husband as a master printer may quarrel with this, but most of us don’t deal in precision. It seems like a wonderful way to approach life, to not demand perfection, but to learn how to make things work and feel satisfied when the bread doesn’t rise quite as high as Grandma’s or the cake dips in the middle, to figure out how to make substitutions during a pandemic… Granted, that wasn’t exactly what Barbara had in mind, but stretching an adage seems perfectly acceptable, especially in hind sight.
This lesson takes years to learn, and Barbara’s words have been passed on to many of the young cooks and gardeners I’ve mentored. It can be painful to watch someone frustrated because they don’t think they measure up, or to watch someone pull every single tiny weed out of a bed of lavender, taking hours to do a job the boss would do in minutes. But that perfectionist streak seems part and parcel of our psyches, impossible to erase, but with work, we can tame the beast.
Growing up, Barbara was everything I was not. Popular, in clubs and groups, with boyfriends and with a bedroom of her own, where she had a radio, imagine, and privacy. The door was always closed, so I could only fantasize about what she did. She drew, performed in plays, and her head was always stuck inside a book. She had ideas and even went to the Guthrie Theater one summer. Exotic was a word I would’ve used to describe her, if I had had the vocabulary.
So this book represented an entry into her world, a world I had only dreamed about. What makes someone, at a young age, so sure of themselves, and someone else, in the same family, totally insecure? It’s a lovely mystery I have no interest in solving. As I remind my young friends, it doesn’t matter when you blossom, only that you do. For me, it was a long, slow process and began with little gestures, like this book of Elizabeth David’s.
In time, I would acquire all of Ms. David’s books and especially love one titled: Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. It was a book Barbara had given to Mom. Every time I’d visit Mom, I’d pick up that book and read, comment on little things in the book and Mom would always be interested, but she’d never read the book herself. During one visit, Mom said, “Why don’t you take it with you?” and I did.
Now I have one of those nutmeg graters, pictured on the cover, that holds a nutmeg in a little chamber and grates the nutmeg so nicely, opening the senses when I brush off the nutmeg that clings to the metal. A whiff of a fragrance like that can turn a sour mood into one of optimism in a second, one of the reasons I enjoy herbs and spices and like to spread the gospel. Also such fun to show it to people who’ve never seen a whole nutmeg and to explain about the netted covering on the nutmeg, called mace.
I’ve begun collecting seeds and drying herbs for the winter. I often carry on a conversation with Ms. David. She enjoys eating the bread seed poppies out of her cupped hand, as I tilt a ripe pod towards her and let the seeds fall out. Once the seed matures, the poppy pod becomes a salt shaker. Children love this and ensure seed gets scattered every which way. Birds do the same. They’ve figured out a way to cut through the holes in the shaker and help themselves. I have to harvest the seed quickly if I want my share.
Now it’s oregano. Not Greek, but the pink-flowered, common oregano. I prefer it for an all-purpose oregano. The others have a stronger flavor and can easily over power a dish or soup. But the common tastes mild and I can use it liberally. Ms. David cautions me about drying too much and says, “Three-quarters of the dried herbs bought in an excess of enthusiasm by amateur cooks end up in the dustbin because they have been kept too long.”
I tell her I couldn’t agree more, but now we have compost piles so at least it gets recycled. I assure her I will use all of the ½ gallon I dry as a handful goes into every bean soup I make, and I make at least one a week during the winter. She eyes me skeptically, and looks a great deal like my sister Barbara…
And then I realize because Barbara gave me the initial book when I was so impressionable, I imprinted on her all of Ms. David, and forever more the two will intertwine. It’s quite lovely how we do that with characters from books we love, poets we read, musicians, whatever, and I feel quite sure Barbara will roll her eyes and then laugh and say, “Whatever.”