In the fifties and sixties, haute cuisine in America meant French food. Food writers such as MFK Fisher, James Beard and Julia Child had been extolling the glories of French cuisine for decades and the public was sold on it.
Then there was a sudden change.
Beginning in the early seventies, these same food mavens turned away from French cuisine and began writing about a simpler, more eclectic cuisine. Over the next few years, it evolved into what may be termed American Cuisine, a cuisine that in the hands of acolytes such as Alice Waters stressed fresh local ingredients simply prepared. It was a complete departure from the elaborate French dishes of the past. What happened ? What caused this sea change ? These are the questions that Luke Barr attempts to address in his marvelous new book, Provence 1970.
According to Barr, whose grandmother Norah was MFK Fisher’s sister, the seeds for this food revolution were sown at a chance confluence of several of these food icons in Provence in November – December of 1970. MFK Fisher was there with her sister on one of her frequent trips to France. Julia Child and her husband Paul were there too , living in La Pitchoune, a house they had constructed on the property of Simone Beck, Julia’s co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cuisine. James Beard was there at a local diet spa trying to shed some of his 300 pounds and to mitigate his health problems. Near La Pitchoune there also lived Sybil Bedford and Eda lord, the former a writer who considered herself an expert on French cuisine. They met frequently for gourmet dinners at each others’ houses and the talk was always about food and wine. French food and wine, of course. Towards Christmas, they were often joined by Richard Olney , author of Simple French Food, and Judith Jones the literary super-agent.
If you thought that these experts had a meeting of the minds that resulted in new directions for food and cooking in America, you would be mistaken. Quite the opposite. Bedford seems to have been a thoroughly unpleasant sort who considered herself an expert on all things French. She was snobbish, judgmental and had a particular animus against Americans. She got on the nerves of MFK and Julia who were on the receiving end of her put downs. Beford found a kindred spirit in Richard Olney who was jealous of the fame of MFK, Beard and Child. Child herself was having her problems with her co-author, Simone Beck, who resented playing second fiddle to her; they were to dissolve their collaboration within the next few months. All these petty jealousies and undercurrents made for an unpleasant time and caused those present to re-evaluate their pre-occupation with French cuisine.
In writing this book, Luke Barr was able to draw upon the journals of his great-aunt MFK Fisher and consult with is grandmother Norah who was in her nineties. As part of his research,he went to Provence , staying in La Pitchoune and visiting several of his grandmother’s haunts. Having steeped himself in the atmosphere of those times, he writes sensitively and authoritatively about these disparate characters and their interactions. MFK seems to have kept detailed notes because we are treated to wonderful descriptions of the food and the conversations that she was a part of. The result is a book that could have been written by Fisher herself, since we see everything through her eyes.
It is a book that appeals to the reader at many levels. For travel buffs and Francophiles, it brings back memories of a France that is long gone. For foodies, it describes an important moment in food lore, a moment when we turned away from French cuisine and began instead to look closer to home at the same time as we began to develop a more eclectic view of Cuisine. It also offers an unvarnished view of the food icons of the day. Reading it, I developed a greater appreciation for the down to earth Julia Child and for James Beard even as I took a dislike to the prickly Richard Olney and the pretentious Sybil Bedford, a bully if ever there was one. Of course, I realize that my feelings are based on what MFK Fisher felt about these personalities as reported by Luke Barr but I’m willing to trust her opinions. In fact, I’m thinking of going back and re-reading some of her books. You may or may not want to do that but you should read Provence 1970. You will enjoy it.
Provence 1970. M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste. Luke Barr. Published by Clarkson Potter Publishing House. 2013.