PROVENCE, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste. By Luke Barr. Clarkson Potter. 274 pages. $26.
France developed “French cuisine” over the course of centuries. Independently.
But the United States, less homogenous and with a multitude of cultural influences, was going to require some guidance.
Though schooled in the methods of classical French cooking and possessed of a fervent love of all things francaise, a pantheon of great American food writers was, in the late fall and winter 1970, to engage in a series of informal gatherings that would help establish a new identity for North American foodways.
It took place, ironically enough, in Provence, that French bastion of bucolic delights, where the likes of Julia and Paul Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard and Richard Olney, frequent visitors to the region, suddenly found themselves questioning previously inviolate dictates of French gastronomy, as least as interpreted by a increasingly sophisticated American palate.
Emerging, albeit slowly, from the era of frozen dinners and domestic culinary blandness, the U.S. was about to experience a radical shift from the industrialized food of the ’50s and ’60s and its suburban emphasis on time saving and efficiency. These American food writers and cookbook authors were to lead the way, restoring a long-lost accent on “slow” food, sustainability and fresh seasonal ingredients that later avatars such as Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse) would champion.
In “Provence, 1970,” author Luke Barr chronicles this pivotal moment in 1970 with more than the usual appetite, drawing much of the history of these events from the journal of the same name kept by Fisher, his estimable great-aunt. And what a delightful, informative (and gossipy) exercise in emulsifying it is.
Barr affords us intriguing personality portraits of these esteemed writers, whose comradely, if occasionally testy and competitive, interactions helped fashion a uniquely American approach, despite the objections of certain French collaborators in their midst.
In time, America would rediscover not only its traditional reliance on wholesome seasonal foods and sound cooking methods, but the seductive sensuality of cooking.
And, as Barr consistently demonstrates, the nascent food movement in the U.S., like the Provence group’s own shifting sensibilities, was profoundly influenced by the more positive aspects of the 1960s’ counter-culture.
Of course, others played a significant role in the transformation of American cuisine, not least such figures as Frankie Lappe (1971’s “Diet for a Small Planet”), which connected the dots between the way we eat and the environment, the immense resources used to produce a modest amount of edible meat, for instance.
“Diet” was something of a spiritual touchstone for many of today’s food writers, such as Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” 2006) and Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation,” 2001). But Barr’s argument for the Provence gatherings as the wellspring of contemporary attitudes is persuasive.
An editor with Travel & Leisure magazine, Barr writes fluidly and with obvious affection, admiring even Olney, a painter turned Francophile culinary innovator who could be as arrogant and petty as he was brilliant. Coming off best are the Childs, a warm and winning couple, the avuncular Beard and, of course, Fisher, justifiably praised for her character and literary contributions.
Our current “foodie” culture, with its cable networks and its burgeoning ranks of new restaurants, appends good taste and imagination even to the most practical home cooking while celebrating — sometimes fetishizing — fine dining as an art form.
Unlike so much else in modern life, food choices are something basic that we can control, provided one has access to a range of fresh, nutritious foods and the money to afford the somewhat higher costs. But even the most humble foods can be prepared with (thank you, France) panache.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a freelance writer in Charleston.