Tomatoes in the Archive

(I first published this piece via TinyLetter)
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I arrive at the Guildhall Library in the City of London to look at the archive of Elizabeth David.  I haven’t been here before and I am not looking for anything in particular. I’ve come because of a general fandom for Elizabeth David.  As the security guard searches my bag, he asks me questions about what I’ve come to look at. Cooking stuff, I say, the archive of the food writer Elizabeth David. Then he asks me if I cook and I say, yes,
 
then he says, “how do you make that stuff, um, breadcrumbs, or no, they look like breadcrumbs. You have it with apple.” Crumble? I suggest. “Yes!” He says, “crumble, apple crumble, how do you make it?” Well, you rub together butter with flour and a spoon or so of sugar and a pinch of salt, I say. “Wheat flour?” he asks. Yes, I say. “Oats?” he asks. You can add oats if you want, I say, but fundamentally it’s flour, I think. Then I say my mother likes adding a little baking powder to make it lighter. See what the writer Delia Smith says about it, I say, she’ll probably have some good instructions. This more or less concludes the conversation.
 
Then I go in and ask the librarians for Elizabeth David’s archive, and say I want to see her marginalia, which they advertise on the website. It is explained to me that David wrote her margin notes on slips of paper and tucked them into books. The library have removed the slips of paper, catalogued them in boxes and written what they said in pencil in the books where they came from, the younger female librarian tells me. This is to preserve the books and the slips of paper. The librarians eventually bring me one folder of assorted pieces of paper and letters in clear plastic wallets, and three red boxes with the notes and letters she stuck into her books, also in clear plastic wallets.
 
After I have put my things in a locker (no bags are permitted at the table), I am brought a folder of miscellaneous items to start with by a younger male librarian. The wild luxury of this whole experience is repeatedly astonishing. The librarian shows me how I should look at things, carefully turning through the plastic sleeves as if they were a book.  There are letters to and from friends, photographs of people I don’t recognise, then an article from the Sunday Times Good Cooking Series from 1967 in which David writes about the scientist and cook Edouard de Pomiane. In the notebook I have brought with me, I write down ‘neither reverence for modern fancies, nor worship of folk cookery.’ 
 
Then I note down abbreviated versions of two recipes, ‘Tomatoes cooked in butter, cut side down, pricks in the rounded side and seasoning and thick cream added at the end. Serve immediately’
 
And then, ‘Black bread an inch thick and ½ inch of Gruyere cheese grilled then melted butter poured on top and cut into four pieces then served immediately.’
 
These dishes strike me as things I would like to cook. The specific timing and proportions – an inch, a half inch, into four, small pricks, cut sides, serve immediately – seem to bring qualitative benefits and drama to eating. I can see why David was so excited. Details like this given in recipes can make me think differently, again and again. Have I thought enough about the potential of things? A heavenly future might reside in a handful of tomatoes if I achieve the requisite intimacy; if I think enough about how they are affected by processes.
 
Things I notice from David’s letters: She is quite vulnerable and scared and protective; she is fastidious; she is a loyal friend. David writes to a friend on the 14th March 1980 that she hasn’t cooked anything good for a long time – “I’m so pre-occupied with research I live on omelette, bread, cheese, yogurt and Italian luxuries from the local prosciutto shop. Very extravagant. But we could do worse.”
 
On the way into the building after leaving to eat lunch, the security guard asks me if I am a cook. I think he’s referring to our earlier conversation about crumble, but in fact he isn’t. He tells me my garments are like those worn by the catering staff in the building. Oh yes, I say? Yes, there’s a big kitchen nearby, he says. My black cotton smock is read straight for what it refers to – work clothes. Then he mentions to the other security guard that we’d spoken earlier about apple crumble, that we talked about the recipe for crumble. Then he says, with a twinkle in his eye, I have some in my bag! 
 
When I re-enter the library a small, older male librarian helps me to extract some of Elizabeth David’s notes that were kept in her copy of a book by Fanny Craddock. I ask the librarian if he ever watched any of Fanny Craddock’s TV shows when they was on and he said, “oh yes! slavishly”. And then he mentions Craddock’s husband Johnnie, who I fancy he rather liked. And then he gives me a demonstration of how to treat the papers with an anecdote. He says, “you might be tempted to rearrange the pages to make it seem as if they make more sense  – you probably don’t write or receive handwritten letters – but I still write to my family, you see, and the papers might be in that order for a particular reason we don’t know, so please don’t rearrange them. He doesn’t fully point the finger and say that I won’t know how to treat papers because I probably just write emails, which are generally always in a chronological order. It seems like he realises he might hurt my feelings, so stops short. Anyway, he then says, “please don’t turn over any folded corners. You see this here, there was a paperclip we removed.  Don’t turn the pages as fast as you would ordinarily, like this” then he demonstrates the correct pace. 
 
~
 
A few days later, I cook the tomatoes in butter finished with thick cream, following Elizabeth David’s retelling of De Pomiane’s method from her article. As instructed, I prick the skin of the curved side of the tomato, then set the tomatoes cut-side-down in melted butter in a small pan that just snugly fits them all. It turns out to be a brilliant innovation, because the pricking prevents the skin shrinking off the cut tomato during cooking, and also slows down general disintegration by releasing steam. The juice released from the tomato halves as they cook emulsifies a little with the hot butter, and then finally mixes with the cream to make an exquisite sauce. The only change I make to the recipe is to add a small sprig of thyme.  Delicious! A new favourite.  After seasoning I serve them ~ immediately! ~ for a birthday breakfast, with poached eggs, chard, toast and lots of coffee.
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elizabeth david postcard 2
 
 
 

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