Book Review: Provence 1970
Are you a foodie?
A Provence lover?
If so, Provence 1970 is a book you might want to add to your reading list.
Mary Jane Deeb shares her review of Luke Barr’s, Provence 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste, New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2013.
Luke Barr, in his book Provence 1970, tells the story of a serendipitous gathering in Provence of the most famous American writers of cookbooks at the time. In the last two months of 1970, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard met for long and mouthwatering dinners in the region of Grasse. The conversations around the table revolved around the state of cooking in France and in America, and “while it would be folly to argue that they alone determined the future direction and sensibility of American cooking, their encounters in Provence, in rustic home kitchens, on stone terraces overlooking olive groves, in local restaurants, and at ubiquitous farmers’ markets in the surrounding countryside, provide a unique up-close view of the push and pull of history and personality, of a new world in the making.”
Barr is the grand-nephew of Mary Francis Fisher, better known by her initials, and the trail-blazer of the group. Using Fisher’s diary, the personal papers of Julia Child donated to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and those of James Beard, archived in New York University’s library, Barr re-creates the atmosphere and the conversations of these three writers and cooks, and their friends, which took place in November and December of 1970. So talented is the writer, that he makes the reader feel that s/he is partaking of those meals and sharing in the conversations.
While I would not necessarily agree that those conversations were ground-breaking and forever changed American outlook on food, as the publishers seem to imply on the back flap of the book, I would say that these writers in their conversations and in their writings captured, and were able to transmit through their books, an elusive quality about French cooking that only the best writers in this field fully recognize. These authors understood that the enjoyment of Provencal cooking and the appreciation of fine wines was not all there was to it. It was the spirit behind French cooking which they internalized in their own lives, the undeniable joie de vivre element that makes cooking not just self-sustenance for the body, but also for the mind and the soul.
A significant part of the book focuses on meals eaten together with friends. The ones that made me re-read the book twice, take place in La Pitchoune, on a hillside near the village of Plascassier south of Grasse. This was the house Paul and Julia Child built in 1965 on the estate of Simone Beck, Julia’s coauthor on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The three bedroom house had a large kitchen and was surrounded by olive trees.
In mid-December the Childs invited for dinner M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard and two novelists the American Eda Lord and her partner Sybille Bedford, a German aristocrat and a great wine connoisseur. The description of how they all get together to prepare and serve the simple meal of smoked salmon and roasted chicken, and how Beard creates a soup for the occasion from the ingredients found in the kitchen, which Julia Child immediately dubs eponymously “Soupe Barbue,” makes you wish you had been there.
Then there is the Christmas dinner at La Pitchoune, when Julia Child decides to roast and stuff two young geese with prunes, sausage and chestnuts. Her brother-in-law’s family come to Provence from Maine, and other friends from the culinary world descend upon them. Paul Child creates an aperitif for the occasion with vermouth, orange essence and dark rum. There is also a jambon in parsleyed aspic, and of course the traditional Buche de Nöel. But it is the spontaneity of these gatherings, the spirit of fun, the generosity and sense of deep friendship that pervades these pages, that trumps the mouth-watering dinners.
They gossiped and talked about food and politics and mutual friends – they laughed a lot. They had fun! And so will you as you read about these larger than life characters who understood that food was only part of the enjoyment of life, and shared that knowledge with their readers. They moved back to America, and their careers flourished in different ways. All continued to have a major impact on shaping the culinary taste of Americans and of the new generation of American chefs.
 Luke Barr, : M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste, New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2013, p. 9-10