In the final chapter of her book Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Elizabeth David springs a surprise. This section, on beverages, opens with a detour to the Stuart courtier-philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby, with David arguing that Digby’s posthumously published collection of recipes, first printed in 1669, has been unjustly maligned owing to its surfeit of mead-based concoctions. ‘Were the forbidding blocks of print divided up … into verse form,’ she writes, ‘it would be seen that like all the best recipes, these are runes, litanies, something even of magic spells.’ She then breaks up Digby’s formula for one such brew, White Metheglin, into thirty-eight lines of free verse, the Carolean cocktail recipe revived as found poem: ‘when it is but blood-warm/Put in as much of the best honey/As will make the Liquor/bear an Egg the breadth of six pence above the water.’
David’s invocation of magic gestures to the residual belief that poetry, with the incantational qualities of its rhythms and repetitions, might possess an animistic force capable of charming or transforming what it addresses – in other words, that poetry makes something happen. In this context, a poem might be said to resemble a recipe, at least in so far as the enigmatic words of a spell, like a list of ingredients and cooking processes, are a set of optimistic instructions. Sorcery and the saucepan come together, remember, in the most famous literary recipe of them all: ‘Double, double, toil and trouble;/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble./Fillet of a fenny snake,/In the cauldron boil and bake’.
Beyond this, David’s versification of Digby’s recipe is suggestive of the scholarly direction that her writing had begun to take by 1970, when Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen appeared. She increasingly believed that the ‘quaint and uncertain rules by which our ancestors cooked’ would reveal