All of us are eaters. We have no choice. It is either eat or die.
Then, of course, there are others for whom cooking is the result of art, tradition, reason, personal passion. Cooking is their profession. Who has not heard of some of the great ones, including Americans Julia Child, James Beard and Richard Olney?
Now comes a new book, PROVENCE, 1970 by Luke Barr. Its subtitle ends ... "AND THE REINVENTION OF AMERICAN TASTE." The subtitle begins by listing three American food professionals who, as author Luke Barr argues, changed once firmly entreached personal attitudes toward French cuisine as THE one and only acceptable way to prepare food. Their 1970 interactions in Provence helped move America to step out bravely on untrodden paths. They did this thanks to several informal, barely planned weeks that they and others spent cooking and arguing together in Provence, France in late 1970.
The first person named in the subtitle is Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908 - 1992). Best known as M. F. K. Fisher, she was the author's great aunt and had been publishing on food and French cooking since 1937 (27 books in a lifetime of 82 years). Of M.F., poet W.H. Auden remarked: "I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose." With her nine years younger sister Norah and starting with Luke Barr's Swiss mother, these three women taught author Luke Barr everything vital that he knew about the art of cooking.
The subtitle to PROVENCE, 1970 begins M. F. K. FISHER, JULIA CHILD, JAMES BEARD ... and ends ... AND THE REINVENTION OF AMERICAN TASTE.
PROVENCE, 1970 is built around a diary that M.F.K. Fisher kept of that voyage to France that she and sister Norah made in October 1970, about to become one of the coldest winters in modern European history. It was neither the first nor the last trip the two would make. The book also draws heavily on the published writings of the principals, interviews with observers, some such as a chauffeur still living, and from letters that Julian Child, Richard Olney and others wrote.
In southern France, from Marseille to Arles and environs the sisters would meet Julia Child and her husband Paul, James Beard and the New York food editor Judith Jones.
As structured by Luke Barr, Mrs Fisher, the two Childs, Beard and Jones are the book's "good guys." Having been trained in French cookery, all taught the superiority of European cuisine in general and French in particular. They were now, however, uncomfortably poised to downgrade French cooking and tradition and to begin to do justice to American and other national approaches to eating and dining. Here come at long last enchiladas and New England clam chowder!
For a few weeks in November - December 1970 they dine with, cook meals together and bounce ideas off not only one another but also with worthy, sometimes prickly and unpleasant opponents defending the old ways. I think of the latter as Barr's "bad guys."
They included Julia Child's longtime friend and increasingly distant co-author the French writer Simone Beck, known as "Simca," rising American expatriate in France Richard Olney, American novelist Eda Lord and German Jewish Catholic later English writer Sybille Bedford, nee von Schoenebeck. As portrayed by Luke Barr, Simone Beck and Richard Olney at least initially and for some time to come stubbornly, arrogantly represented a snobbish, aristocratic, ultra-conservative, unbending, traditional attitude toward French cooking. Sybille Bedford and her acolyte Eda Lord, one of M. F. K. Fisher's oldest and once closest friends, made up in Provence, 1970 a cheering section for the purist school of Beck and Olney. Especially in regard to wines.
PROVENCE, 1970 abounds in recipes, visits to restaurants, friends and foes cooking together, endless discussions of food and whither classic French cuisine. It is very, very well written, conceived, structured and presented.
In part, the book is familial tribute to Luke Barr's great aunt Mary Katherine Kennedy Fisher, "doyenne" of American writers on food. In part the book is a survey of ever evolving food trends in Europe, USA and around the world. We see Julia and Paul Child piloting her rocketing career as writer and television show person. We suffer with James Beard as his years in the making history of American food ways, AMERICAN COOKERY largely completed in France, 1970, sold badly. But we then soar with the quick success of his BEARD ON BREAD (1973). We learn how proud, aloof, loner Richard Olney gradually came around to a more accepting attitude of American ways of cooking as new trends developed toward fresh food, organic foods, ethnic cooking, the slow food movement and more. America came to love his SIMPLE FRENCH FOOD.
At its core, nonetheless, PROVENCE, 1970 is argumentative. It has a debatable point to make: After "the 1960s ... European superiority and French snobbery lost their grip on American cooking" (Prologue). Fisher, Beard, the Childs had been long rooted in a French cooking legacy. But their future would be American. And eventually, to lesser extents their new attitude would become that of disdainful Richard Olney and ultra-French Simone Beck.
Luke Barr portrays none of his heroes or villains as religious, though Fisher had a custom of taking in occasional Midnight Masses at Christmas time. They all are shown as living entirely and intensely in this material world: for the senses, pleasure, food, cooking, shopping, disussing and writing about food. In her use of words, Mrs Fisher was by far the most sensuous of the great food experts studied by Luke Barr in PROVENCE, 1970. Eating with friends in a restaurant or cooking joyously for or along with them was part of a self-indlulgent culture that included reading, good sex and total immersion in the moment, in "NOW." A life without good conversation over superb (it might be "simple") food was inhuman, unthinkable for the people showcased in PROVENCE, 1970.
I have my suspicions about how seminal those months in Provence in late 1970 really were for re-shaping American attitudes toward food, dining and cooking. I suspect the global impact of the brief but intense meetings of these friends and their at times catty critics was in reality somewhat less than author Barr makes them out to be. But true or false -- and the author thoroughly documents his facts and his interpretations -- PROVENCE, 1970 is a beautiful, easily read book.
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