Elizabeth David was a British cookery writer, who brought a revolution to the nation’s eating habits during the mid-twentieth century.

After travelling around Europe during the 1940s, David introduced post-war Britain to Mediterranean cuisine and ingredients which revitalised the flavours of home cooking.

As part of her research into the social history of food, David collected cookery books and left her private collection of historical material (in total, 234 volumes) to the Warburg Institute Library.

In this blog post, Warburg Assistant Librarian, Dr Clare Lappin, tells us more about the collection and shares with us the secret to a ‘good mushroom ketchup’.

The Elizabeth David Bequest 

In the Festivals section on the fourth floor of the Warburg Library, the browsing reader will find a wonderful collection of historical cookery texts shelved at our Banqueting classmark (DCH 250-DCH 540). 

Many of the books in this section come from the collection of Elizabeth David (1913-1992), the influential English food writer whose recipes inspired a generation of cooks. David famously introduced grey post-war Britain, slowly recovering from wartime rationing, to the vivid pleasures of olive oil, garlic and the flavours of the Mediterranean. Fascinated by the history of cooking, she amassed a superb collection of historical cookery texts which she generously bequeathed to the Warburg Institute after her death. The rest of her book collection may be found in London’s Guildhall Library.  

The pages of many of David’s books offer grease-spattered testimonies to their regular use, both by David herself and by previous owners. These are not pristine theoretical works, but practical and well-thumbed guides. Some of the books have notes and annotations that further attest to their usefulness, such as David’s 1784 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, shelved at DCH 379.   

‘To be Sold at the Axe Inn, Aldermanbury’ 

Handwritten notes bound into Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery (1784)

The 1784 Art of Cookery includes handwritten notes from a former owner that have been bound into the text. One reads:   

Nov 15th 1780 to be Sold at the Axe Inn, Aldermanbury, till Saturday next, exceeding good Mushroom Ketchup at 3/6 a Gallon or 1/ a Quart, warranted to keep good a Twelvemonth. Please to bring Bottle and Cork. Catchup see Page 247.  

Turning as instructed to page 247, we find a recipe for Catchup That Will Keep Twenty Years. It is part of a chapter entitled ‘For CAPTAINS of SHIPS’, which recommends such delights as Portable Soup, Mushroom Powder, Fish Sauce to Keep a Whole Year and Sea Venison (the recipe begins, ‘When you kill a sheep, keep stirring the blood all the time till it is cold…’). The key to a good twenty-year ketchup, Glasse tells us, is stale ale: the stronger and staler the better.   

To make Catchup to keep twenty Years, The Art of Cookery, p. 247

The unidentified ketchup-seller of 1780 was presumably a Londoner, since they chose to sell their wares at a well-known coaching and trading tavern in the City of London, the Axe Inn. The Axe was located ‘on the east side of Aldermanbury, at No. 20, in Cripplegate Ward Within’. Even in the 1780s the tavern had a venerable history. It was first referred to in the Brewers Company accounts of 1424 as the ‘Ax yn Aldermannbury’. Rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, in the 1700s it was a busy coaching inn, the hub of the Liverpool to London stagecoach route and a favoured meeting place for the wool trade. It would have been a lively spot from which to sell provisions. The building was demolished in the 1920s and has since been replaced with offices. 

The Art of Cookery 

Mushroom ketchup is just one of the offerings in Mrs Glasse’s book, which includes recipes for roast udders, forced hogs-ears, pickled cocks-combs and a dish called Pigeons Transmogrified. Cooks could choose between two ways to dress a turtle (one recipe begins ‘Kill your turtle’; there are unpleasantly precise instructions on how to go about this) or they could attempt a somewhat less exotic recipe for mock turtle (actually boiled calf’s head).    

To make a Mock Turtle, The Art of Cookery, p. 347

Mrs Glasse didn’t only offer recipes for food. A perfumery section near the end of the book  includes instructions on how to make tooth cleaning powder and an opiate for teeth (presumably a last resort if the tooth powder hadn’t worked), as well as more frivolous items such as Virgin’s Milk, Nun’s Cream (made with powdered pearls) and a perfume called Miss In Her Teens. A chapter on medicines offers cures for the bite of a mad dog, a recipe against the plague and advice on how to clear your house of bugs. 

Sadly, Hannah Glasse never fully profited from the runaway success of The Art of Cookery. Originally published in 1747, the book quickly became a bestseller and went through multiple editions in both Britain and America during the 18th century. Glasse, however, had been forced to sell her copyright of the text in 1754, when she was sued for bankruptcy and briefly imprisoned in Marshalsea debtor’s jail. Although she later published a second cookbook – The Compleat Confectioner (1760), also included in David’s collection – she couldn’t reproduce her early success and died penniless in 1770. 

Receipt against the Plague, The Art of Cookery, p. 342
Receipt against the Plague, The Art of Cookery, p. 342

The Elizabeth David bequest will be the next digitisation project undertaken by the Warburg Institute’s Digital Library. In 2020 we will begin work on scanning David’s four copies of The Art of Cookery alongside the other historical books in this fascinating collection, ensuring that every recipe, handwritten annotation and mysterious food stain will be available for perusal online.  

Notes:

On Elizabeth David, see Lisa Chaney, Elizabeth David: A Biography (London: Macmillan, 1998)

One the Axe Inn, see Charles W.F. Goss, “History of the Parish of St-Mary-the-Virgin Aldermanbury” in Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 9 (1948), pp.113-164

On Hannah Glasse, see First Catch Your Hare …: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (Totnes: Prospect Books, 1995)

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