Tuesday 22 May 2012

Do I blame Elizabeth David for postwar beer decline?

I’ve had a theory for some time that the decline in beer consumption in the UK was partially due to the influence of Elizabeth David on British middle class cooking habits. Back in the 1950s, olive oil was something you got from the chemist, while aubergines were probably thought to be the vegetal props of red-nosed, low comedians and garlic a salve against those teddy boys who fancied themselves as Christopher Lee. Then comes Elizabeth David with her cook books full of Mediterranean sun — and voila garlic, aubergines and courgettes all feature in the British middle class kitchen. Coq au vin, Greek salad, Navarin lamb — what is the drink that is served alongside dishes like these? Wine of course. This was obviously not the only reason (and actually David is by far my favourite cookery writer with French Provincial Cooking being my desert island cook book), but maybe it added to all those other things that eventually stripped British beer of its dominant status (foreign holidays didn’t just mean lager but also Mateus Rose and Liebfraumilch, both of which could be boozed while sitting in front of the telly). 

This thought occurred to me as I remembered about how one British cookery writer (possibly Arabella Boxer) believed that David’s prediliction for the south stunted the growth of British cooking, which was just showing signs of emerging from its tunnel of Brown Windsor and steamed cabbage. Bit unfair to blame one writer of this decline (and by association the decline of beer), but at roughly the same time (mid 1950s) just as David was weaving her magic on the middle classes, another food writer Elizabeth Craig released Beer and Vittles, totally dedicated to recipes cooked or served with beer (I love the idea of the Weissbeer Zuppe, which suggests one and half pints of ale). The opening line of the introduction has Craig write: ‘if there is one form of cookery that has been neglected more than another in Britain it is beer cookery.’ Back in 1955, did anyone think that this observation was right I wonder?


  1. A very interesting suggestion. In the 1950s, beer's lack of variety (not just in terms of recipes but also 'brand values' -- which was the trendy brewer with youth appeal in 1955?) must have made wine appealing as a 'lifestyle choice'. (Can't write these things without sarky quotemarks.)

  2. But it is interesting to note that in Gordon Ramsey's Pub Food book released just a few years ago, there is hardly any mention of beer at all. Go figure.

  3. I remember Gordon spitting out Landlord on telly because it was unbearibly bitter.

  4. Bailey
    There were plenty of breweries putting out nice ads (for the 1950s) and don’t forget lifestyle was really something that came a bit later.
    Knut — I always have a wry smile when I hear a chef say how much they love cooking with beer, it seems to me to be a) part of a deal they have with a brewery or b) someone has said it is a good gimmick
    Kieran — yeah I remember that