British food writer and food writer, shares her thoughts on belonging through food

The lockdown made me rethink what it means for me to belong somewhere. Before the lockdown, many of us lived a varied life: we worked, visited friends and relatives, and took an annual vacation abroad. Lockdowns present a challenge for those of us who have seen their world suddenly shrink to just the four walls they call home. What can we do to help? What can we do to redefine what it means for us to be at home? One way to approach this is by looking at what we eat.

I have found comfort in the works of Elizabeth David, one of Britain’s greatest food writers from the 20th century. David’s experiences in the Second World War and its immediate aftermath are reflected in her books. She uses food to meditate on what it is to belong in difficult circumstances.

David and Charles Gibson Cowan sailed around the Mediterranean in 1939. The goal of the trip was to reach the Greek islands. David brought along with her culinary travel companions, such as Hilda Leyel’s The Gentle Art of Cookery and Edward Bunyan’s The Epicure’s Companion, to spark her imagination.

David used these books to experiment with Mediterranean cooking in southern France. But the war caught them up, and they fled to Italy, where they were detained in horrible conditions and thought to be spies. They lost their boat and everything else. They settled in Syros, Greece, where David learned to “keep house.” This is immortalized in her biographical entries, which boast that “Mrs. David lived and kept home in France, Italy, Greece Egypt India, and England as well as England.”

David, while Cowan was teaching English, pared down their lifestyles to the basics. She prepared what she called, in her classic French Country Cooking (1951), food that is “honest and sincere,” using what she had on hand. David took this formula to Cairo, where she worked as a librarian for the Ministry of Information and learned traditional Levantine cooking from Kyriacou, her cook.

Warmth in cold climates

David recorded her experiences in a 1950 book of recipes, A Book of Mediterranean Food. She outlined what she learned while managing the household in difficult times. David usually had the recipes “given” by others or created based on her understanding of regional customs. Her method consisted of recording the basic ingredients and adapting them to suit the situation.

Elizabeth David urged Britons to use olive oil in their cooking, but they were forced to purchase it from pharmacies instead of grocers. PA/PA Archives/PA Images

David was able to fit in anywhere as long as it valued olive oil, lemons, and garlic. This was especially true in 1947 when the coldest February in recorded history was experienced in England.

David was preoccupied with more than recipes: it was an approach to food and a way of living in unique contexts, as she described in French Country Cooking.

Someone once said that you either spend your whole life in your bed or in your shoes. After you have done your best with shoes and beds, dedicate all of the time and resources available to build a beautiful kitchen. This will, as it should, be the most comfortable and cozy room in the home.

During the lockdown, many of us, myself included, have probably resorted to DIY projects. Our kitchens/offices are not an exception. In these tough times, we have been looking for “comfort and comfort” by chucking clutter but building up, as we are now faced with belonging in our home.

Belonging to a lockdown

The lockdown made us re-evaluate our place in society. How can we avoid feeling resentful about being confined to our gardens and homes (if we even have them)? We can reduce our lives to the essentials by being more conciliatory and less resentful.

Elizabeth David, faced with the restrictions of post-war Britain and war, turned to food. She wrote about it, experimented with the ingredients available, and built a comfortable and homey kitchen where she felt at ease. The kitchen doesn’t have to be a restrictive place. It can allow us to break out of the restrictions and travel wherever our imaginations take us.

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