Provence, 1970

I just finished a lovely book.

For those who read the Soul Artist Journal on my Soul Quests website, you have probably noted that at the top of the sidebar of the SAJ page, just above the subscription feature, I list the book(s) that I’m currently reading. If you receive this via email, for better or worse my reading list doesn’t get disseminated with the weekly posting. (So if curiosity strikes you about what’s currently resting on my bedside table or being toted around in my bag, you’ll have to pop by the site every now and then.) This week, however, I’m going to tell you about it.

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, was written by Luke Barr, an editor at Travel + Leisure, and the bookcovergrandnephew of M.F.K. Fisher. It’s a recent release, one that I considered for a bit before buying, uncertain whether I would actually enjoy it. I have read and delighted in Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, along with the engaging and intriguingly historical compendium, As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto—Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece. Though drawn from journals, letters and memoirs of the primary characters, would Provence, 1970, be too fictionalized? I wondered too if Richard Olney, whose beautifully and sensually written cookbooks I adore, would be portrayed as something of a monster. The initial online reviews that I read of the book were mixed, and it wasn’t until I picked it up at Barnes & Noble and flipped through the pages, perusing, that I decided to take the plunge.

From the book flap:

Provence, 1970, is about a singular historic moment. In the winter of that year, more or less coincidentally, six iconic culinary figures, including Julia Child, James Beard, and M.F.K. Fisher, found themselves together in the South of France. They cooked and ate and talked late into the night about the future of food in America, the meaning of taste, and the limits of snobbery.

 

The pioneering food writer M.F.K. Fisher had arrived on an ocean liner, traveling in grand style. The already iconic Julia Child, star of the television show The French Chef, was returning to her vacation house, La Pitchoune, wondering just how “French” she wanted to be. Simone Beck, Child’s co-author of the seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking was there, too, at her family’s estate. James Beard, meanwhile, was working on his most ambitious book, American Cookery, while enrolled at a nearby diet clinic. And the reclusive chef Richard Olney, whose first book, The French Menu Cookbook, had just been published, was living in Provence and pointing the way to a new kind of culinary bohemianism. Here were America’s leading voices in the food world—joined by renowned cookbook editor, Judith Jones—all converging in Provence, and yet, incredibly, some were meeting for the first time.

 

Drawing in large part from M.F.K. Fisher’s detailed journals and letters, her grandnephew Luke Barr has re-created what is in retrospect a pivotal moment—when the democratization of cooking and taste became part of the national conversation in America. His dramatic retelling of those few weeks in the hills above the Côte d’Azur conjures conversations and meals, arguments and unspoken rivalries.

 

Provence, 1970, captures this momentous season set against a French backdrop, cinematic in scope, and through the lens of Americans contending with the politics of the moment. Barr’s riveting story traces the beginnings of a modern American food culture, and how, without quite realizing it, these players changed the course of culinary history to reshape the way we eat today.”

I’m so glad that I bought the book. I found Barr’s writing to be excellent and engaging, with a storytelling style and panache of which his great aunt would be pleased. He treats the diverse cast of characters with a respectful and fair hand, and the solitary gay expat, Olney—a brilliant, complex, often caustic and extremely challenging man—is recognized equally for his considerable merits and deeply-set faults.

Alice Waters, owner of the iconic Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, has been hugely influential in changing Americans’ palate. She is perhaps more responsible than anyone for the revolution in the way we eat, cook, and think about food. Yet she was inspired by the key people on which this tale centers, particularly Olney with his (then) groundbreaking approach to seasonal, local food that focused on simplicity. “Without Richard Olney,” Waters has written, “there would have been no Chez Panisse.”

Most all of the characters in the book have now gone from life. There are reflections here on how the world has changed dramatically since the fateful season on which the story pivots, a time and lifestyle sadly crushed beneath the speeding wheels of ‘progress’ in a world now moving too fast. Several aspects of Provence, 1970, touched me on one level or another, from the easy-handed skill of Barr’s writing to the way that each of these icons, despite their varying levels of commercial success, clearly struggled to find their path and continue to evolve. As I read about these friends (and rivals), I felt the deep stirrings of longing to share a well-crafted life with good companions who appreciate the grace of the table, for friendships that endure through the trials and triumphs into the so-called golden years.

Not surprisingly, my own longing for Provence and the Mediterranean, a region that I adore down to my bones, surfaced as well. Naturellement.

In my reading of Julia Child’s various works and letters, never have I encountered her direct use of the word ‘soul’ when writing about her beloved Provence, yet clearly from her words and strong feelings, it was her spiritual touchstone—just as for Fisher and Olney (the only one who actually resided there permanently). Transparent in each of these individual’s writings and Barr’s book is how deeply attuned they were to Provence, what that sun-drenched land—with its silvery olive groves, the bold and (then) slightly rough wines, old stone farmhouses, intensely captivating light, an elegantly rustic cuisine and relaxed lifestyle—evoked in them; an alluring and captivating Old World locale that each of them considered home in some primary way.

History remembers the ones who follow their passion. Each of the people in this story, in her or his own way, was guided by the passions of their soul, a path that they followed primarily through the art and taste of good food. All shared the desire to teach others. In a loose manner, each was a Soul Artist of sorts. At a time when it was uncommon, they were fluent in the sensual delight of skilled, competent and accessible cuisine, along with the bonhomie of sharing it together alongside a bottle of noteworthy wine. Soul Artists always celebrate the simple, elemental pleasures of life through their wide open senses… and heart. This, they did.

Provence, 1970, is a lovely diversion through a special place at a singular moment, a time now fading into the sepia hues of memory and old photographs. If you’re at all interested in good food, or even how our American culinary scene arrived at its own renaissance, I recommend this book. And if you read between the lines to the mythic story hidden underneath the details of their everyday lives, this is really an account of heeding the mysterious call of the soul.

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