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Davidson, Alan Eaton (1924–2003), diplomatist and food historian, was born on 30 March 1924 at Garden City, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, the only son and elder child of William John Davidson (1899–1959), inspector of taxes, and his wife, Constance, née Eaton (1889–1974). His father was Scottish, which Davidson regarded himself as being, though he was brought up in the north of England and educated at Leeds grammar school and Queen's College, Oxford, where he gained a first class in classical moderations in 1942. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1943, first as an ordinary seaman, before becoming a lieutenant and serving in the Mediterranean, north Atlantic, and Pacific until 1946. After demobilization he returned to Oxford to complete his degree, graduating with a first in literae humaniores in 1948.

Diplomatic career

On leaving Oxford Davidson joined the foreign service. His first overseas posting, from 1950 to 1953, was in Washington, where he met and in 1951 married Jane Emmett Macatee, the daughter of an American diplomat. She had been brought up in London and in the Middle East before taking a degree in Russian and German at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. They had three daughters, Caroline, Pamela, and Jennifer.

Davidson's next posting after Washington was as a second secretary at The Hague until 1955 when he had four years in London at the Foreign Office. In Cairo from 1959 to 1961, he was first secretary, British property commission, dealing with complicated problems of restoring British property seized after Suez, and later head of chancery, charged with overall co-ordination of the operation of the embassy. Now recognized as a high flyer, he occupied this same post at Tunis from 1962 to 1964, where he was also consul. He enjoyed this posting, where he began his second career as a food writer. His wife had encountered difficulty in buying fish from the wealth of it available in the local markets—the familiar fish had unfamiliar names, and no one could tell them how to cook the many exotic species that lived along the lengthy Tunisian coastline. In 1963 he produced a mimeographed pamphlet, Seafish of Tunisia and the Central Mediterranean, and the next year a similar one on Snakes and Scorpions in the Land of Tunisia.

Davidson's next posting was as head of the central department which was concerned with those countries that were members neither of NATO nor the Warsaw pact. David Colvin, a junior colleague there, later recalled that he was ‘exciting, even dangerous to work with’, because though he worked at a rapid pace, he was a stickler for detail, and was said to have a short temper (The Times, 9 January 2004). From 1968 to 1971 Davidson was head of chancery in the British delegation to NATO in Brussels. One result of this was an anonymous, imprintless, and undated, slightly subversive, satirical thriller, Something Quite Big (not published in Britain until 1993), about the kidnapping of sixteen senior NATO officials, showing how poor NATO security was. It was first printed in south-east Asia by a non-English-reading Roman Catholic priest and typesetter. As head of the Foreign Office's defence department from 1972 to 1973, Davidson published The Role of the Uncommitted European Countries in East–West Relations (1972), the outcome of his experience at the central department and a visiting fellowship at Sussex University in 1971–2. In 1973 he was appointed ambassador in Vientiane, and stayed in Laos for two years, at a crucial juncture in the Vietnam War. He then retired from the foreign service, aged only fifty-one. Perhaps he had an inkling that his meticulousness was no longer appreciated; two years after his resignation the Berrill report on overseas representation notoriously remarked that ‘much of the work’ of the Foreign Office was ‘done to an unjustifiably high standard’. He was appointed CMG in 1975, though he later wished he had refused it, as he did all subsequent offers of official honours, and he deleted mention of it from his Who's Who entry.

Food writer and food historian

Davidson's Tunisian fish book had been sent to Elizabeth David who reviewed it favourably in The Spectator. She introduced him to Jill Norman, her editor at Penguin, and in 1972 the firm published his Mediterranean Seafood, a revolutionary combination of scientific taxonomy along with the vernacular names of the fish, visual illustrations of them, and recipes for cooking them. The book became a necessity for serious cooks, as more and more exotic species made their way to the few remaining fishmongers' slabs in Britain. The same perfect formula was applied in Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos (1975), Seafood of South-East Asia (1976), and North Atlantic Seafood (1979), all of which went through several editions. Much of the information they contained was supplied by Davidson's diplomatic contacts.

While ambassador to Laos, Davidson had attempted to teach himself to cook in preparation for his new career—efforts often thwarted by the embassy cook. It cannot be said that he ever mastered the craft. But he loved the people of Laos, and was regarded by the small Lao community in Britain as their much-loved patron—as was shown by the fraying string bracelets that always festooned his wrists. Tokens of a Lao religio-magic ceremony called a basi, it was forbidden to cut them, and they had to be allowed to disintegrate naturally. Even his eccentric dress reflected his love for south-east Asia, and included a black Nehru-collar tunic created from diplomatic court dress and a silver necklace from which was suspended a medallion with the likeness of the (President Eisenhower-lookalike) chief Buddhist of Laos.

After his retirement from the foreign service Davidson and his family lived in an 1880s house in the World's End district of Chelsea. In 1978 he contracted with Oxford University Press to write his magnum opus, The Oxford Companion to Food, and the house became a research centre, with the two basement rooms stacked floor-to-ceiling with cookery books and reference works in all of the several languages he, Jane, or their daughters could read. The same year he and his wife edited and translated a redaction of Alexandre Dumas's great dictionary of food, published as Dumas on Food.

In 1979 Davidson and his wife set up a publishing company, Prospect Books (subsequently sold to Tom Jaine), initially to publish the texts of rare cookery books, though they did once have a best-selling original cookery book, Patience Gray's Honey from a Weed (1986). They also started a small magazine, Petits Propos Culinaires. This very Davidsonian enterprise had its origins in a bizarre requirement by Time-Life publishers, who had hired Richard Olney to write their twenty-four-volume Good Cook series (with Davidson as a consultant), that no unpublished recipes could be included. Olney happened to be one of the few cooks in history who invented totally new recipes (a claim substantiated by a legal action), but this fiat prevented him from using his own recipes. So Petits Propos Culinaires was printed in an initial run of 500 in order to publish Olney's recipes under a set of whimsical noms de plume, including Nathan d'Aulnay and Tante Ursule. It also contained an essay by Elizabeth David, devoting much learned effort to showing that a charming but obscure seventeenth-century cookery book was not written by the countess of Kent. Thus was born the first serious periodical dealing with food history.

During the academic year 1978–9 Davidson held an Alistair Horne fellowship at St Antony's College, Oxford, studying ‘Food and cookery: the impact of science in the kitchen’. (The fellowship, sponsored by Theodore Zeldin, the historian of France, had been awarded against a background of official scepticism, and even outright opposition to the idea that food was a suitable field for academic research.) In May 1979 he and Zeldin gave three seminars at St Antony's based on his research. Twenty-one people, from disciplines as various as the history of medicine to mathematics and French literature, turned up to the first seminar to discuss the historical connections between science and cookery (and indeed the fact that, though there was a long-standing connection made between writing on food and medical matters, it took a very long time for any connection to be made between cookery and physics and chemistry). Among the participants were Nicholas Kurti (the physicist who invented the term and the concept of molecular gastronomy), Elizabeth David, Jill Norman, Richard Olney, Anne Willan and her husband Mark Cherniavsky of the La Varenne cookery school in Paris, and Paul Levy. Among later participants were Claudia Roden, Jane Grigson, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, and Sri Owen, along with two Dutch scholars who had come expressly for the seminar. Both the increase in the number of participants and the increasingly less specialized questions addressed by the seminars illustrated their creeping success; and showed there was a good deal of interest in food history and the history of cookery, with no obvious outlet for this enthusiasm. So clear was the demand that Davidson and Zeldin decided to expand the seminars into annual symposia, with themselves as co-chairmen, starting in 1981.

In the course of his massive research for the Oxford Companion Davidson travelled a great deal. In 1980 he, the publisher Caroline Hobhouse, and Paul Levy went to China. Giving the slip to their official guides, they found their way to the offices of the several publishing houses that the guides had assured them were closed for their holidays, and came back with hundreds of Chinese cookery and botanical texts. Books of recipes were a new phenomenon, for the Chinese cookery tradition had been oral; but having recalled their master chefs from their banishment working as peasants in the fields, it was now necessary for the Chinese government to record their recipes in order to train a new generation of chefs. On the same trip, at a restaurant on the Mekong, in northern Thailand, Davidson and Levy discovered that the sole decoration was framed photocopies of pages of his Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos and that they, the sole guests, were being served the giant catfish of the Mekong, whose extinction Davidson had only recently proclaimed.

In 1999, after twenty years' gestation, the million-word Oxford Companion (most of it written by Davidson himself, assisted ably in its production by Helen Saberi) appeared to unanimous, loud acclaim and won many prizes. The final authority on nearly every question on which it touched, it was a monument to one man's labour and scholarship—and wit, for many of the entries are very funny. In 2003 Davidson received the Erasmus prize (an honour previously bestowed upon Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Marc Chagall, and Isaiah Berlin) from a beaming Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam. The award was for establishing the Oxford symposium on food and cookery and for writing the Oxford Companion, and he was cited as the founding father of food history. Davidson, though, had already begun research for his next project, a history of 1930s Hollywood ‘screwball’ comedies. He was among the last absolutely genuine, unselfconscious English eccentrics. His scholarship was impeccable, his arguments good and always logical, his conclusions reliable, and his generosity in sharing his knowledge unbounded. He died on 2 December 2003 at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, of heart failure, and was survived by his wife, Jane, and their three daughters.

Paul Levy

Sources  

A. Barr and P. Levy, The official foodie handbook (1984) · P. Levy, Out to lunch (1986), 183 ff. · The Times (4 Dec 2003); (9 Jan 2004) · The Guardian (4 Dec 2003) · The Independent (4 Dec 2003) · Daily Telegraph (5 Dec 2003) · The Scotsman (8 Dec 2003) · WW (2003) · FO List (–1975) · personal knowledge (2007) · private information (2007) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

priv. coll.

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview with Sue MacGregor, H1767/05


Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£632,733: probate, 12 Aug 2004, CGPLA Eng. & Wales