In the fall and winter of 1970, the culinary stars aligned. Some of the food world’s most prominent figures found themselves together in the south of France: Julia Child of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Child’s French coauthor Simone Beck, American food authority James Beard, food writer M.F.K. Fisher, acolyte of rustic French cookery Richard Olney, and editor Judith Jones, along with assorted spouses, siblings, partners, and friends.
It could be the setting for the most delicious mystery Agatha Christie never wrote. In theory, these figures were all on the same page, gourmands who had been influenced by France in varying ways, united by a love of food. In reality, their personalities and views often clashed.
Luke Barr documents their convergence in an evocative new book, with an appropriate time capsule of a title: “Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” He is uniquely equipped to do so. Fisher was his grandaunt, and he mines her diaries and personal papers to re-create the moment. He also has something of her cadence and lyricism, which means the reader is treated to delicious description of the meals these friends (and frenemies) cooked and consumed together. Barr leads us through step by step, without rushing a bite.
So: “Richard Olney was preparing a feast,” he writes. “He sat at the kitchen table with a small, pointy knife, painstakingly piercing each large piece of beef stew meat and inserting a small strip of pork fat into the incisions. The strips of pork belly had been covered with a paste of chopped parsley and garlic, and would add flavor to the meat from the inside out. He put the larded meat in a bowl, poured a bit of olive oil and cognac and then a bottle of dry white wine over it, and left it all to marinate. . . . It was late November and raining outside. He was alone in the kitchen. He was happiest at moments like this.”
Barr’s description continues in this vein, covering many courses and pages. It is edifying, not just in the way it tantalizes our senses, but in the way Barr is able to sketch each character through his or her cooking style.
But the author is after more than just a portrait of food stars on vacation. He argues that this time in France was pivotal, not just for these individuals but for the trajectory of American food. Things were changing. Americans — long in thrall to European, and specifically French, food — were expanding their palates, embracing Indian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern flavors. Hippies were bringing whole grains and health food into the equation. Home cooking was bigger than ever.
And Child was rebelling against Beck’s insistence on doing everything the “correct” French way. Beard was about to complete “American Cookery,” emphasizing the importance of US cuisine. Fisher found herself slightly less enchanted by France, chafing against the perceived snobbery of oenophile friends and Olney’s self-seriousness: In Barr’s portrayal, he saw himself as an artist, standing pure in the face of commerce — unlike Child, whom he saw as willing to adulterate the cuisine for the convenience of the American housewife.
Olney gets rather the short end of the stick in this book. Barr, naturally, casts himself on the side of Fisher; Olney is portrayed as a cutting gossip. But one suspects his targets were able to give as good as they got. In Olney’s 1999 New York Times obituary, for instance, Child is quoted: “ ‘I think he enjoyed being difficult,’ she said. ‘But on the other hand, he could be absolutely charming if you treated him like the genius he considered himself to be.’ ” Ouch.
(Olney wasn’t around to defend himself, but today he is having his revenge. His beliefs about food and his cooking style — “simple,” pure food, dictated by seasonality and ingredients — feel perfectly current. His protégée Alice Waters carries on his legacy. Child’s detailed French recipes don’t hold up nearly as well.)
The group’s time together, Barr posits, clarified what each of these figures was thinking and helped them move forward, away from haute France and into a more all-encompassing, free-range culinary future. “It had all started during those few weeks in Provence in 1970, when the primacy of France, of French taste, had come into serious question, at least in the minds of several of its greatest champions,” he writes. “Who knows how the story of American cooking would have turned out if Child, Beard, and M. F. hadn’t lost their patience for snobbery, thanks in part to the snobbery they were exposed to during that time.”
The argument may lend more weight to the moment than is warranted; these people were already heading in this direction, along with the rest of the world. No matter. The book’s real success is in transporting the reader back to a pivotal time, in bringing it to life again. It is a nostalgic, lovely read.
These characters were vital; now they are part of culinary history. One day people may read similar accounts of today’s moment, when anyone could become a tastemaker through the blogosphere, when tablecloths were pulled out from under our plates and even fine dining became casual. It will all seem as inevitable as “Provence, 1970” does now.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.