Review: Provence 1970 by Luke Barr

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As a graduate student, I studied the 20th century expat Americans who lived in Europe between and around the two world wars, but it wasn’t until my former roommate and awesome friend Becca gave me the Alice B. Tolkas Cookbook that I realized there was so much incredible food writing from this group and this time period. Since then I’ve read M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating and a number of books written about/written by Julia Child. These ladies are not all contemporaries, but they are connected to each other through the rather tight network of expat Americans who lived at least periodically in France. These connections are artfully explored by Luke Barr in his non-fiction book Provence 1970 (recommended to me by another great friend Lori Brister who writes about amazing things like cheese and archaeology on the regular).

Barr is the great-nephew of M. F. K. Fisher, one of the most well known food writers of the early – mid 20th century. He discovered a journal she kept while visiting friends in France in the winter of 1970. What emerged was an incredibly interesting dynamic between a core group of American foodies including the Childs, James Beard, and Richard Olney. Barr writes about the accomplishments of these chefs and their connection to one another in a narrative form, quoting occasionally from letters, cookbooks, and of course Fisher’s journal. There were moments while reading that I wondered how much of what Barr was saying was speculation, but his exhaustive list of sources and notes at the back of the book bolsters the authenticity of his account.

Barr uncovers an interesting tension between these characters and the old world / new world of cooking that was taking place in 1970. While I found the cattiness of Olney, for example, to be off-putting, Barr does his best to illuminate the issues at the heart of that tension. In Barr’s estimation, Olney redeems himself later on in the book when he realizes what an impact Julia Child had on an entire nation. While I was no stranger to the old world/new world dichotomy on many things (tradition, culture, wine), I was surprised to see how adamantly Beck and Olney were opposed to Child, Beard, and Fisher when it came to cooking by rule vs cooking by feel. As someone who does both, I can appreciate wanting to impart the spirit of cooking as much as the specific instructions that will produce consistently good dishes. I’ve said it many times: cooking and baking are roughly equal parts rules and feelings. I’ve seen my mother, for example, follow a recipe exactly, but be disappointed with the final product. Similarly, I’ve winged it a bit too much and ruined more dishes than I care to admit. Success in baking, which arguably requires the most precision and detail, still depends on your ability to instinctively know when it is baked to perfection (baking times and temps help, but ovens vary so wildly that you really need to keep a careful eye on it -never take the recipe as the end all here).

The other issue I found interesting and relevant even today was the gendered divisions underlying the tension that Barr describes. Julia was committed to making transparent the complicated cooking of traditional French cuisine to American housewives who don’t have three straight days to make one dish no matter how succulent and pure. Barr underscores Olney as an “artist” who wouldn’t bat an eye at a recipe that takes days to come together. Even though he says Beck is similar to Olney in this regard, it reminded me of a division I still see in cooking today – the chef vs. the homemaker. Less than 20% of chefs and head chefs are women even today, but the lifestyle market that has emerged for “homemakers” (a big part of which is food-based) is worth billions of dollars and is dominated mainly by women.

Barr’s book made me want to read and cook from Julia’s post-fame cookbook From Julia’s Kitchen, so that is now on my list. I’d also be interested to read from Beard and Olney, so hopefully I can find their work at the library. Do you have a favorite recipe from these chefs? Somewhere I should start? Let me know!

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