Elizabeth David and Company…

The Company being the apparent legion of writers who drifted in and out of David’s life, some to become lifelong friends, others just passing through, plus, peripherally, those she reviewed for assorted publications. Many of them look as if they’d provide entertaining, often deeply eccentric, reading in their own right, and are interesting enough for me to seek out their books.

Obviously, most, probably all, are out of print and, often, probably unknown, at least to the general public, outside of David’s books though, for some reason, the name of Normal Douglas rings a faint bell. I have no idea why.

In “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine,” though, David discusses Norman Douglas in considerable detail, though not enough for me to get any idea what the man did to earn a crust. He appears – and I accept that this might well be unfair – to have been something of a dilettante, travelling, writing books, with not a great deal in the way of formal work (much like David at some stages of her life, though this impression, too, might be down to lack of detail in her writing, which, on the whole, often reflected her recipes, which could be exercises in vagueness for a lot of people, as she assumed that her readers would have mastered at least the basics of cooking. Here she assumes we know who Douglas is, which might have been a valid viewpoint when it was written, but doesn’t help much now.

She can, infuriatingly, assume knowledge on the part of her readers that most of them couldn’t possibly have. For example, she repeatedly, in French Provincial Cooking, mentions an apparently widely popular French lunch dish of petits pois and ham, even going so far as to tell us that industrially-produced, wet-cured ham would ruin the dish, and that artisanal, dry-cured ham was essential. However, she doesn’t tell us anything about what the dish actually is, whether or not there are any other ingredients, or even if it’s served hot or cold – and that pisses even me off! And yes, I have tried, without success, to find out.

I don’t normally have a problem with that approach, as I said in this post Cookery books – should they lead you by the hand? even though, in my own recipes I try not to assume knowledge on the part of my readers. Some clearly appreciate this approach – it’s a rare recipe that doesn’t bring in a couple of new subscribers to my blog and/or a flurry of Likes – while, doubtless, at least as many more are irritated by it.

I feel strongly, especially as I’m writing for spoonies – people like me who are disabled, and whose physical resources are limited – that giving maximum detail not just about the what, but about the how, and why, provides the greatest good for the greatest number, because I accept that many people need that level of information even if I, with my reader’s rather than writer’s hat on, do not (though David, above, takes that to absurd extremes). Always, as a blogger – hell, as a writer in any field that purports to be instructive – you have a duty to give your readers what they need, not what you think they should have.

But I digress but, hell, you know that’s not unusual…

Back on track, David, rambling on at considerable length about Norman Douglas, eventually piqued my interest and sent me off on a quest to track down his books. My first stop was the Many Books website, the outlet for Project Gutenberg which is dedicated to converting old, out-of-print, books to digital formats which, of course, includes the Kindle, but there are many others.

There I found four books by Douglas. They are, in chronological order:-

Fountains in the Sand (described as Rambles Among the Oases of Tunisia), published in 1912

Alone , 1921

Old Calabria , 1915

South Wind (a novel), 1917

All of which have been added to my Kindle, in my stash of books to read in hospital (not pessimistic, realistic).

Sadly, they don’t have the book that’s likely to prove the most entertaining, “Venus in the Kitchen,” which rubbishes the idea of food as aphrodisiac, even if publishers, especially in the USA, afflicted by an apparent inability to either read or, if they can, to detect irony, almost always take it at face value as a text-book for the cuisine of seduction when, in reality, it lampoons those who take such nonsense seriously. The search goes on.

An oversight – or laziness – means that “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine” has no bibliography, even though many books, and their authors, are mentioned – they are, instead, lumped in with the index. All of them? I have no idea, so I suggest making note if any attract your interest if you read this book which, mostly, will repay the effort handsomely. It can be a little curate’s eggish, which makes it a book to dip into rather than read front to back in sequence (it’s a collection of published articles, leavened with a few that remained unpublished, which makes it the perfect “smallest room” book!

So far, then, Norman Douglas is the only one of the writers mentioned by David – and there are many in this one book – that I’ve tracked down, but I intend to make a serious effort to find more members of David’s company of writers, both her friends and some of those she reviewed.

It is, I think, a good project for those days when I feel utterly burnt out – I can just sit here and interrogate Google as well as the organisation involved in the digitisation of old books.

And to end, a tip: If you have a Kindle, don’t bother with  PDF versions  of books – they’re unreadable. Kindle can store PDF documents, even books – you just can’t read them on Kindle unless you have extremely acute eyesight, the text is minute – sub-bible in size – and can’t be enlarged.

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