Growing up as the stepdaughter of a British diplomat, Elisabeth Luard often resided in Spanish-speaking countries, where she was introduced to the world of food. “In Uruguay, I used to go home with the cook and the maids on the weekends where people grew their own food, they killed chickens and kept a pig,” says the author, who raised her own children in rural France and other areas with rich cooking traditions. “It was very different from my mother’s household, which is where the cook was in the kitchen, and sending food into the dining room.” Those childhood experiences ignited a lifelong fascination with traditional cooking styles, and in 1980, she released “European Peasant Cookery,” based on travels to 25 countries. The book, which in the United States is called “The Old World Kitchen: The Rich Tradition of European Peasant Cooking,” was expanded and reissued last month.
Q. You started as an artist. How did you end up as a food writer?
A. When I started to write about food, it was an add-on when I was doing botanical illustrations for The Field, a hunting, shooting, fishing magazine. That column was how my career as a food writer started. Then I was asked if I wanted to do a cookbook and I had this in my head. I got an advance, which allowed me to add to my basic knowledge, which was pretty much Mediterranean. I set out on two journeys, one starting in Vienna and going through what was then Yugoslavia and Greece and Turkey and then up through Bulgaria and Romania in a car with my husband, who was a travel writer. Then, because I was missing Scandinavia, I started again in Bergen [Norway], went up right through Norway and then down through Finland and back through Sweden. I sort of managed to make the loops that I needed and then I wrote the book.
Q. You kept sketches along the way, which are in the book. How did your illustrations help you as you traveled?
A. Well, off we went, looking in markets and gardens and generally talking myself into people’s houses to see what they were doing, what they were growing or what they had acquired, which is not that difficult because as a painter, I can sketch very quickly. So I can communicate quite easily what I want to know with small sketches. I still use that. You can ask questions through it, if you want to know if there’s honey in something, you can draw a bee, or if you want to know if it’s rye or barley, you can quickly do a sketch of that. The fact that I had good Spanish, adequate Italian, pretty good French, rudimentary German, all of those things meant that I could ask direct questions. So in the book you’ll find quite a lot of quotations from those travelers and also drawings from my sketchbooks.
Q. Did you resist the book being renamed?
A. When my American publisher Bantam said they wanted to change the title to the “Old World Kitchen,” I said, “Any e’s on the end of that, you’ve lost an author,” because of course, it wasn’t true. I didn’t want it to be “olde worldy.” I wanted it to be something that is still alive, something that is still important to the people who knew how they cooked and knew where they came from, sometimes only instinctively.
Q. When the book was first released, you were invited by Julia Child and the Culinary Historians of Boston to speak. What was that like?
A. Julia swept me up and took me out to dinner at Legal Sea Foods. It was terrific, but the problem was, I had had dinner there before the gathering, very early. I had been through an enormous meal of lobster and clams and melted butter and everything, and then after the meeting, guess where Julia took me? Same place. So I had to plow my way through another enormous bowl of clams and lobster. But in between, the Boston Historians had cooked a cassoulet from the book, which I of course was obliged to sample and be very enthusiastic about, because it was a very good rendering of it. Three large dinners in one evening was quite complicated.
Q. The book is now being labeled as “rediscovered.”
A. I think in a way it was way before its time because when it was first published in the United Kingdom, it attracted a lot of attention but it was not yet mainstream. But now I think there’s been a move back toward that kind of cooking.
I think we’re rediscovering what food should look and be like and where it comes from. I think history is of much more importance now than it was then. People genuinely want their food to taste like where it comes from, and local and seasonal and all those kinds of things are much more mainstream now.Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at email@example.com.