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Posted on 9 Apr 2015 in Non-Fiction |

LUKE BARR Provence, 1970: MFK Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the reinvention of American taste. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir

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provenceThe big personalities of American food writing reveal themselves in unguarded moments one summer in France.

Do not expect one of those ‘running away to Provence’ books.

Yes, this non-fiction work is set largely in southern France, but it doesn’t recount some lucky person’s triumphant renovation of a crumbling Provençal house. Instead, it traces a number of shared meals and often tetchy interactions among a group of privileged, mostly American, members of the food fraternity. Or, as author Luke Barr describes them, ‘the seminal figures of modern American cooking’.

The various players knew each other or knew of each other. Several had planned to meet up in France during December 1970, but as they realised other colleagues were also in the vicinity, the group formed and reformed in different combinations, at different locations, and around different dining tables. Their common ground was that they were, in different ways, leaders of the American food scene.

In the wider community at this time, attitudes to food changed along with other seismic shifts in culture. The ‘leaders’ felt their own certainties challenged and consequently rethought their own attitudes to cuisine. Barr refers to the context out of which the 1970 Provence meals arose as the reinvention of American food:

… a time of discovery … an expanding interest in ethnic food and international cookery … new culinary freedom, informality, and experimentation versus doing things the old way; America versus France, in other words.

 ‘The nascent changes in the food world,’ he continues,

… reflected the politics of the era – they were taking place in the context of the Vietnam War; the civil rights, environmental, and free speech movements; and sexual liberation and feminism.

After the author raises these issues in the introduction, I expected he would continue to pay close attention to this cultural tumult. To my disappointment, it fades into the background as the forceful personalities cook for each other, clash and niggle.

Influential writer and presenter of television food programs Julia Child is probably the best known among the group, largely because of Julie and Julia (blog, book and film). From 1963, Child’s immensely popular television program The French Chef broke through the ‘convenience-driven rise of canned and processed food’ that had overtaken American kitchens in the prosperous post-war 1950s. (The Can-opener Cookbook, anyone?) Two years before that, she had co-written Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Simone Beck (known as Simca) and Louisette Bertholle.

By December 1970, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume II had been published to widespread acclaim. However, Child’s working relationship with Simone Beck – her only co-author this time – had broken down, in part because Beck believed her French birth gave her a true knowledge of French cuisine:

She saw herself as the guarantor of authenticity when it came to their cookbooks, the one who made sure that no stray, vulgar Americanisms snuck into their recipes. Child had dubbed her la Super-Française.

The wobbly relationship was further complicated because La Pitchoune – Julia and Paul Childs’ Provence house, their haven – was built in the grounds of Simone Beck’s family property.

It was largely at that house that the various characters came together. Guests included MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher, who had published her first book about food, Serve It Forth, back in 1937. She often included recipes but her focus was more firmly on the sensual and even erotic experience of food:

… she had managed to invent a new voice in American literature, one that was irreverent but never acerbic, witty, feminine, casual, sexy, direct, impatient, the very opposite of stuffy – in a word, modern … liberating and intoxicating – it was, at the time, even a little shocking for a woman to write this way. To embrace sensual pleasure so openly.

Only recently admitted to the fraternity of prominent food people was reclusive, prickly Richard Olney. An American who had lived in France for over 11 years, his first book, The French Menu Cookbook, had appeared the previous year. His style of food was rustic and often simple, focusing on seasonal availability, and his writing style is praised:

The recipes were also superbly well written: sensuous and evocative but always absolutely clear.

Among them too was James Beard, a long-standing and well-loved giant of the American culinary scene, whose Paris Cuisine had appeared in 1952. But by 1970 he was suffering from a lifestyle focused too closely on food. Overweight and with poor circulation and heart problems, he had checked into a clinic in the south of France. His time with the group presented him with the temptations he had been forbidden; his appearance worried those who cared about him

On the spur of the moment, Judith Jones – Knopf editor of both Child’s and Fisher’s books – and her husband crossed the Atlantic to join the group. Jones would play an important role in smoothing over the rift between Child and Beck.

Author Luke Barr catches the personalities of all these people, conveying their enjoyment of each other’s company as well as the awkward tensions. His knowledge of these multiple private viewpoints – and the menus for each meal – arises from his research in the archived correspondence of those involved. (The book includes notes and a careful index.) As the great-nephew of MFK Fisher, his personal insight was enhanced when he also made a stunning find: his great-aunt’s diary of this period.

Barr is careful not to privilege Fisher’s viewpoint at the expense of others. However, he singles her out as the only person in the group who was aware of, and involved in, the great social and cultural changes of the time. During 1964’s ‘Summer of Freedom’, he tells us, she had taught black children at a Mississippi boarding school; she mentions this during one of the Provence meals, hoping to shake her companions into seeing that:

… there was more to life than masquerade balls and a 1953 Margaux [wine]. That America was changing, and like it or not, so was France.

After she leaves, Richard Olney speaks with drunken spite, calling her ‘empty-headed’ and her writing ‘silly, pretentious, sentimental and unreadable drivel’. He calls James Beard a ‘pompous buffoon’. Julia Child is ‘bitter … irrationally anti-French’. In Olney’s eyes, all these people were inferior; only he was authentic.

Barr has made sense of all his material by focusing on upheaval and change – especially within the lives of those about whom he writes. His introduction describes Fisher’s diary:

It was a daily journal, but as I read closer, what I found was something else: a minutely observed account of her changing relationship with France, and, finally, a kind of existential reckoning and break with the place where it had all begun for her, the place of her own writerly self-invention.

Unfortunately, Barr’s many references to ‘change’ grow repetitious and annoying.

There is another – though unavoidable – level of repetition as he backtracks to show events first from one viewpoint, then from another. I found this easy to forgive as the revelations construct the complications of ‘real life’. I felt I was overhearing unguarded and intimate comments not meant for my ears. Of course, this only inflamed my disgracefully prurient interest.

Barr differentiates the characters using telling phrases in establishing their pettiness, snobbery, bitterness, rivalry, and other ignoble traits. In the end, however, he reserves judgement, carefully acknowledging rapprochements and mellowed perspectives. For instance, after writing at length about the breakdown of the relationship between Child and Beck, he notes Child’s reference, in her final book, to ‘my grande chérie Simca’. He also traces the lasting impact of his various players, showing how their different approaches are synthesised in, say, the more modern cuisine of Alice Waters.

But although the push and pull of fraught relationships is fascinating, this book will probably not appeal unless you are interested in the recent history of cuisine and the players involved. I was drawn in because MFK Fisher’s writing is among my favourite literature, and during the early 1980s Simone Beck’s whisky-enhanced Le Doris chocolate cake issued from my kitchen many times. Even with pre-existing knowledge, I sometimes found it difficult to follow the interweaving stories of all these characters. But for me, it was well worth the effort.

Luke Barr Provence, 1970: MFK Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the reinvention of American taste Crown 2015 PB 320pp $24.99

Jeannette Delamoir is an ex-Queenslander and former academic. She loves writing, reading and living in Sydney.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.