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December 4, 2013

Provence, 1970

It was a Sunday evening in mid-December, and Julia and Paul Child were awaiting their dinner guests, M.F. and Beard. They had urged M.F. to bring her friends Eda Lord and Sybille Bedford, too. So, they would be six.
      Why had she brought such an enormous chicken? Child wondered. It sat on the counter looking rather larger, somehow, than it had at the butcher's.  She'd done shopping that morning in Plascassier and Grasse, to the excellent Boussageon for meat and various charcuterie items, and to Madame Londi's, her favorite fruit and vegetable shop. She found Boussageon's pate to be fine and carefully flavored. In Cannes the previous day, she and Paul had walked along the narrow rue Meynadier, with its many food and specialty shops selling cheese, chocolate and macaroons, fish, game and quiche; and of course an endless selection of Provencal dishware, gifts, and handbags. She ended up buying a smoked salmon that was the biggest she'd ever seen -- almost three feet long!
      She would serve the chicken and some potatoes, and set out some of the prepared dishes, along with fresh bread. She would make a salad. This would be an easy dinner -- a casual affair. There would be something simple for dessert.
      James Beard arrived early and was soon poking around the kitchen with her. He would make a soup, he said. He began washing and chopping a large amount of chard he had found in her refrigerator.
      Child and Beard loved cooking together, and had even given themselves a joint nickname a few years earlier: Gigi, a combination of their names (or, at least, the Js in their first names, as pronounced in French). It was silly, of course, but that was the point. The Gigis were in the kitchen, they would say. She wore a bright flower-patterned dress, and he had matched her with an equally colorful bow tie. ...
      The sun was setting and the sky was dark as Paul, bottles of Bordeaux in hand, heard Eda Lord's VW bug sputter up the steep unpaved driveway. He waved as Lord pulled in next to his rented Renault. She emerged with Bedford and M.F., all of them shutting doors and calling hellos.
      Julia opened the side door directly to the kitchen, and she and Paul welcomed them in. Paul took the corkscrew from its hook on the Peg-board kitchen wall and opened the wine. The kitchen smelled wonderful, and they all offered to help -- arranging some of the smoked salmon and pate on plates, setting the table, stringing beans. Dinner at La Pitchoune was a communal affair. Julia presided in the kitchen in her apron, towering over her guests. Everyone pitched in.

from Provence, 1970, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and
the Reinvention of American Taste,
by Luke Barr

There's something about this time of year (all the foodie magazines?  the foodie holidays?  the cold, dark nights?) that makes me feel drawn to food writing, even more than usual. I was reading a great foodie book about this time last year (and I've just been re-listening to it as an audiobook).  And an equally great one about this time three years ago. This book is a wonderful addition to the tradition; I liked it very much.

Luke Barr is a magazine editor and the grand-nephew of M.F.K. Fisher (he has based this book, in part, on a diary he found in his cousin's stash of family archives). He remembers visiting his great aunt in Sonoma when he was a child, and a meal that she served {'...the dense and meaty grilled chicken drumsticks with watercress and homemade pickles... Or they may have been drumsticks from some other, smaller bird -- I remember they were tiny and delicate, a little bit sweet. I loved them.'}, and her praising him for being a slow eater. He also describes bringing his 90-year-old grandmother {M.F.K.F's younger sister, Norah} to Provence, to revisit some of the places the sisters had been to together.

But even though that connection added a lot to the telling, this isn't really a family story. After reading the diary that he found, the author decided to write about a few months, in the late fall and winter of 1970, when several of the most prominent American food writers -- M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Richard Olney, Judith and Evan Jones (Child's and Fisher's editor and her husband), and Richard Olney -- found themselves in Provence together at a turning point in their feelings about French cooking, France, American cooking, cookbooks, recipes and food in general.

M.F.K. Fisher has traveled to France with her sister; she is 65, about to finish a memoir about her childhood in California and thinking deeply about where and how she should live. She enjoys her time with the Childs and with Beard, but she is disenchanted with the food snobbery she finds in Olney and other friends and escapes, by herself, to cold, closed-up Arles to think and write.  Julia and Paul Child are at La Pitchoune, their house in Provence; Julia has just finished the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and knows that her now-difficult collaboration with Simone Beck is at an end. They worry about their friend James Beard, who is finally finishing his long book on American cookery, but is dangerously overweight and ill, and they find themselves admiring Richard Olney's books on French cooking but disliking him personally (he hopes M.F. will write about him for The New Yorker, but seems disdainful of her and her friends). There are debates (and good, old-fashioned, delicious. nasty sniping) about what is authentically, traditionally, truly French and what is not, and about who is a better cook. And there are menus and long descriptions of the meals they cook for each other.

Who can know how history actually happens. where or when exactly an idea takes root, or wilts away? In December of 1970, the seminal figures of modern American cooking -- M.F., Julia Child, Simone Beck, James Beard, Judith Jones and Richard Olney -- found themselves together in the south of France. They could feel their world was changing. Indeed, they themselves had set many of the changes in motion. ...
      The gathering happened more or less by accident, but at a particularly combustible moment ... and they would each be making choices about how to move forward. ...The small group gathered there was the tightly wound nucleus around which all others orbited in the insular, still clubby world of food and cooking in 1970. 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 the 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.


Frances said...

I just go this one! You make me want to drop everything and read it now. Saving it for the upcoming holiday though.

skiourophile said...

This sounds such a wonderful book. Every quotation I've read from it has made my mouth water!

Anonymous said...

Oh, that sounds lovely and heading south with the weather here what it is would be heaven. I'm stuck at work in Cornwall, but in my head I'm with Undine is Paris.

JoAnn said...

I'm definitely in the mood for some foodie lit - this sounds wonderful!!

Nan said...

I'm reading it right now, and am enchanted.

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