Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste is a non fiction account compiled by Luke Barr, the grand-nephew of iconic food writer MFK Fisher, of a series of meetings and correspondence between some of the most influential food people of the time. The setting? The Provence region in southeastern France – a counterpart to the burgeoning Northern California food scene. Much of the book is written from M.F.K. Fisher’s perspective, based on her journals and exchanges with these food personalities.
A turning point in American food history
Up until the end of the 1960’s, France was the epicenter of the culinary world, and classic French cuisine defined “great food”. At the same time, in the eyes of some of America’s most notable tastemakers, it was losing some of its luster – for different reasons. Julia Child and Simone Beck, her writing partner for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, were experience strain from their diverging points of view on French recipe writing. Bohemian expatriate Richard Olney showed disdain for the ‘bastardization’ of French cuisine into ‘grand palace cuisine’ and centered his work on meticulously prepared farm-to-table fare. M.F.K. Fisher’s travels and romanticized views of France contrasted with her experiences in the area during the months she spent there in 1969 and 1970.
Much of the debates and conflicts described in Provence, 1970 stem from authenticity. Can French recipes compiled by the American cooks and chefs be considered authentic? Are the better chefs and cookbook writers those who instruct on the techniques vs. those who break down the recipe to the most detailed measurements and steps? Ultimately, can American food and wine culture find its legs and become as influential as the French?
That Richard Olney…
I knew nothing of Richard Olney prior to reading Provence 1970 – I don’t know if this is an advantage or a disadvantage. An American expatriate in France, Olney had the advantage of his connections to the French food establishment – and a sharp, critical eye (and tongue) towards his American counterparts. He led a simple life in Provence, where he wrote columns for Cuisine et Vins de France and developed recipes that were ingredient driven, seasonal yet refined. The famous 40 cloves of garlic chicken recipe? That’s Richard Olney.
Olney is picked on as a natural ‘villain’ for his disdain towards all three of the main figures explored in the book. However, he is redeemed later as a torchbearer for the produce-focused California cuisine that is still revered today despite his polarizing personality.
“It was indeed a ‘gossipy profession’, Child declared, “which is part of its charm. But thank heaven we love and trust each other.”
Provence 1970 is mainly structured around M.F.K. Fisher’s 1970 trip to France. Each chapter covers a different topic or exchange, spinning from the viewpoint and backstory of each of the personalities that converged in Provence during that winter. In addition to M.F.K. Fisher, the Childs, James Beard and Richard Olney, Luke Barr also highlights Simone Beck (co-author of both Mastering the Art of French Cooking volumes), Judith Jones (Child and Beck’s editor), and writers and Provence residents-at-the-time Eda Lord and Sybille Bedford. The book indeed turns gossipy – sometimes deliciously, but at times it’s cringe-worthy.
The title is slightly misleading. Although James Beard is featured in the book, Richard Olney’s should have also received ‘cover billing’. Olney’s focus on ingredients and techniques married with Julia Child’s appetite for detail result in the recipe writing we crave for today.
Great Food 360˚ Rating
Although the book slumps in the middle and becomes slightly repetitive, any non-fiction book that keeps me interested in its subject matter is a winner. After reading Provence, 1970, I supported a crowdsourcing campaign for a documentary on James Beard, ordered Nora Ephron’s definite essay collection (which includes “The Food Establishment” – a reference quoted several times by Barr), and looked up everything I could find on Richard Olney to make sure he was as big a… character as he is described. It was inspiring to read about these culinary trailblazers, their claims to fame and their points of contention. Makes me wonder how history will judge the current food establishment, influences, and most prominent figures. (4.5/5 stars)
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.