Provence 1970, is at first glance the narrative of year in France, when three of the greatest and most recognizable names in the food world; James Beard, Julia Child, and M.F.K. Fisher, spent time together. Yet, it is also a history of the new attitudes and the changes that came to the American food world; partially as a result of that time.
Other less known names, like Olney, Beck, Lord, Bedford, and Jones, who were also intimately connected to the food world, are part of the story. They too played a role in the shifts taking over the food world. These people both brought about changes in their own right, but they also had a large impact on both Childs and Fisher, causing them to reexamine, and change the course of their own food journeys.
The book is written by Luke Barr, the great nephew of M.F.K Fischer. The novel is constructed largely from the personal papers, letters, and diaries of Fisher. Barr also worked from the correspondence of both Julia and Paul Childs, and others who have a place in the story. Most, if not all, of the figures in this book kept elaborate correspondences, and notes throughout their careers.
At the beginning of the book, Provence 1970 reads like a dry textbook. A chronicle of events, spelled out by an all observant third party, that lacks in a sense of emotion. Perhaps this is because the story really is a third hand account of events, gleaned from papers and notes; and no matter how prolific the original writer might have been, it can be hard to “translate” into a narrative.
Or, perhaps not, because somewhere between pages one and seventy four, the reader will find themselves entranced, engrossed, and utterly drawn into M.F.K., Child, and Beards world. Perhaps Barr just needed to find his stride? Barr does a good job weaving together his own memories of M.F.K. from childhood, the events of 1970, the events that predate and influence the group, and the more personal thoughts of these figures. Everything comes together in one complete and flowing narrative.
A big part of what Barr does that makes things come together is the way the backdrop of 1970 is presented. Tucked right into the description of events in 1970 we learn about what happened before. For example, Prior to Beard, Child, Fisher’s influence, America as a whole was focused on connivence cooking. It was an era of canned vegetables, casseroles, and boxed cake mixes. Then, through their work Beard, Childs, and Fisher managed to become the face of the new food movement and a driving force in bringing French cooking to America. (In fairness it must be stated that the influences of many others also played a part. Three people alone, do not a food revolution make.)
Though, as Barr notes in Provence, their work was about so much more then teaching Americans to cook French food:
“Child has always know that what she did was teach people to be fearless, unintimidated, to try and if necessary to try again, to cook, to taste, to enjoy, to have fun… And M.F., too, had not simply been celebrating French food and hedonism all these years; she’d been writing about something more essential, about how to live, to find pleasure in the moment (pg. 170).”
Their work brought about a new emphasis on quality ingredients, the acceptability of more involved food preparations, and an educated palate. All these things, from ingredients, to confidence in the kitchen became important not only in high end restaurants, but also in the mainstream. It was the start of the democratization of food in America.
All this is the backdrop to Provence 1970. At the time of the events described in the book these changes had already begun to take root; and Childs and Fisher were both working out exactly what direction to go next. Here Barr manages to get us inside these greats heads.
We learn, how Childs felt after recently finishing up her project with Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II. She felt that is was time to move away from exclusively French cooking. She was ready to explore other cuisines of the world that were already starting to come together in America. She was done with the stuffy, authoritarian approach of Beck. She was ready to strike out on her own.
We also see that meanwhile Fisher had sold her home. She was traveling with her sister and by herself in France, reliving fond memories, but also figuring out where to establish herself for her twilight years. And most importantly deciding what work she would take on during that period. Her feelings were mixed, nostalgia, impatience with the snobbery she too observed, and maybe even a fear of getting stuck, lost, in the past.
Both were starting to see the limitations of France. While they both valued the traditions of fine food, cooking, and the attitude of pleasure towards food; Childs was chafing at the sense of extreme rule following, to the point of becoming archaic; and Fisher was certainly becoming cognizant and beginning to intensely dislike the snobbery that was also prevalent in the food world at the time.
Then, into the crux of that situation walked Richard Oleny. an American, yet firmly established and accepted in France. Oleny was an interesting mix of the traditional high brow French ways and preparations of food yet also recognized the value of simple well executed provencal cooking. But, he was also a tremendous snob, and even sometimes viciously judgmental of everything non-French. His interactions with both Childs and Fisher most certainly got them thinking and moved them further along towards their next steps.
What, then, was the next step? More work with food, of course; but work that included not only the great French traditions, but also brought into play the strengths of the American way of looking at food: innovation and open mindedness. American ideals made it possible to absorb the many traditions and cuisines of the world into “fine food;” and also to democratize food. Ideally the future would hold, “something entirely new, combine the je ne sais quoi and self-assurance of France and the open-minded, can-do accessibility of America (pg. 179).”
For more details then that you have to actually read Provence 1970, and I suggest you do. Not only is this the history of how we came to where we are today in regards to food; the spirit that brought about these shifts still lingers, continues, and keeps moving us forward today.
This is the foundation that brought about the slow food movement, food blogs, the spread of farmers markets in America, and so, so much more. It is the spirt in which need to continue to move forward in food, taking on issues like GMO’s, the cost of non-local food on our environment, and the health issues now plaguing Americans today as a result of poor diet.
It also reminds us not to forget the sheer pleasure of food that we never want to give up. For these reasons, in addition to being a downright fascinating inside look at the figures who dominate recent food history; Provence 1970 is a must read for any foodie, cook, or person who eats.
I received a free review copy of Provence, 1970, from Blogging For Books in exchange for a fair and honest review of the book. All opinions expressed here are my own. The link included for Provence 1970 is an affiliate link. I will receive a small percentage of the sale should you choose to purchase after following the link. I appreciate your monetary support of Feed Me I’m Hungry.