September 2013

Heather Partington

nonfiction

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr

"There is more good food and cooking than ever in America, and more hype, spectacle, money, moralizing, and pontificating, too..." says Luke Barr in Provence, 1970. Americans love to eat and to talk endlessly about food, and we're fascinated by our own culinary icons.

Barr, editor at Travel + Leisure magazine and grandnephew of food writer M.F.K. Fisher, wrote Provence, 1970 to illuminate a singular moment in American culinary history: the unique -- and almost coincidental -- convergence of great American chefs and food writers in the South of France for the winter of 1970. The events which transpired there ultimately led to a shift in philosophy and defined what would eventually become uniquely American modern cooking. Barr researched Provence, 1970 extensively, relying heavily on the correspondence of those in attendance that season -- Julia and Paul Child, Simone Beck, James Beard, Richard Olney, and Judith Jones -- as well as a copious journal M.F.K. Fisher kept during her stay in Provence.

Barr writes Provence with an eye to the change these icons brought to American cooking in the decades before -- most famously, Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She is rendered here as real, relatable, and focused on bringing predictable results to the home cook. Fisher, though, was an influential force of her own right, a preeminent travel memoir and food writer, writing boldly of food and pleasure. Beard and Olney were also respected figures of the culinary world. Beck and Child had garnered great success with Mastering I and II, but Beck was beginning to fade into the background as Americans came to adore the more recognizable Child.

As each of these culinary influences gathered in France to cook for each other, share meals, and debate, tension was brewing. Several of them were questioning their personal approaches, wondering what their ties to France and French cooking would continue to be. Barr describes each of these characters as primed for change when they chance upon each other in the winter of 1970.

Provence, 1970 has a lovely, easy quality to it. Barr creates a seamless narrative out of many sources. He draws on many points of connection: what brought all of these chefs to France in the first place, how they found culinary artistry there, and how they were responsible for bringing that artistry to America.

These first meals and flavors were never forgotten -- they became figments of Proustian memory that drew each of the Americans back to France again and again. They were idealized memories, certainly, but also a true record of a time when most great cooking was French cooking -- simple as that, and when you could not easily find decent bread, fresh butter, let alone a transcendent sole meunière in the States. French food was a revelation, and they were going to bring it home. Which is exactly what they did, each in his or her own way.

An "epochal shift" of the 1960s represented the first wave of transformation to American cooking, according to Barr. But 1970 presented the next wave, one that represented a break from France, or at least the development of something uniquely American, another opportunity for change.

The heart of Barr's book is that he blends insight from the personal correspondence of these prolific cooks and writers' letters with the menus they prepared and the culinary details of their preparation. Not only do we see how each of these characters felt about each other and their disparate opinions, but we get technical details of the food preparation in delicious, sensual food writing, which is blended with conversation and scene.

Child sliced potatoes for a gratin dauphinois, layering them in a heavy dish with plenty of cheese and butter, and then pouring hot milk over. Into the oven it went, next to the chicken, which she took out to baste and to set the bird on its side, and then back in it went. Her method for roasting chicken involved multiple shifts in the bird's position, so it would cook evenly and brown all over, and it involved lots of basting. She added carrots and onions to the bottom of the dish to enrich the sauce.

In this way Barr presents a most accurate picture of the great confluence of 1970, for it was not only the conversation that so shaped American cooking in the years to come but the meals themselves -- Richard Olney's masterful and showy feast, Paul and Julia Child's easygoing casual gathering at La Pitchoune -- the details of their preparation as important to the narrative as the philosophical musings of the chefs. These meals, themselves, become turning pivotal moments that will decide the direction of American cooking.

Barr clearly writes Provence to highlight the work of his great aunt, to remind us that Fisher's work shaped the modern culinary era. He writes Olney and Child as foils, two opposing halves of the Franco-American culinary argument: tension always between purity and simplicity, measurement and improvisation. He writes Fisher as being somewhere between them, in the space created by a love of food and the senses. We learn the most of M.F.K., as the book follows her travels throughout the region and her developing thoughts about France and her future there as recorded in her journal.

Barr sees 1970 as a turning point, resulting in chefs such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse coming to embrace "a new American cooking," rooted "in Olney's bohemian purism, and culturally in M.F.'s groundbreaking literary sensuality." Provence, 1970 gives an insider's glimpse into our culinary history, a peek into the small circle of people that in their own ways shaped how we eat.

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr
Clarkson Potter
ISBN: 978-0307718341
320 pages