I wandered into the Ye Olde Warwick Book Shoppe one afternoon, eagerly anticipating my evening dinner plans at nearby Restaurant Latour. The store specializes in used and rare books, so I headed straight for the food section.
Underneath old Betty Crocker cookbooks and 1950s diet manuals, I found Provence, 1970. The book jacket was pale green, worn and dusty, as was the inspirational notebook that served as inspiration for the work. I was intrigued.
Provence, 1970 tells the story of the events of that time and place from the perspective of author Luke Barr, the grandnephew of M.F.K. Fisher, a legendary food writer that was unfamiliar to me until this day. Barr leverages the personal diaries of his aunt, as well as the saved correspondence (actual letters!) of her contemporaries, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Richard Olney, and James Beard to recreate the events of that year in South of France. Much more than that, Barr gives us an intimate view of the inner thoughts of these culinary giants at a pivotal time in their personal histories and, not coincidentally, the history of American food culture.
During the late fall and winter of 1970, they all lived together as neighbors in the most beautiful place in the world. Provence was where it all had started. It was a place that epitomized the food centered culture and philosophy the group stood for, a place where life and cooking and style all intertwined so easily. The farmers’ markets, the heat and the sun and abundance all around, the wild and slightly disheveled gardens and fantastic sprouting of rosemary, thyme and lavender. The elegant but simple outdoor entertaining. The old tumbledown farmhouses. Provence was also the place, not coincidentally, where American cooking would first break with France, where its modern character would begin to reveal itself.
“Macaron” by Jakub at foodiesfeed
The story begins with reflection on the 1950s — in the author’s words, “a time of awful food in general in America” where “quick and easy” was celebrated. “There were time-saving gadgets, pre-made salad dressings, instant and powdered soups, and Swanson TV dinners. And there were, to cite the usual suspects, tuna casseroles, sloppy joes, fish sticks, and numerous dishes involving melted marshmallows, canned mushroom soup, and Lipton dried onion soup mix.”
The times they were a’changing. The 60s brought the first wave of food celebrity, starting with James Beard.
Beard’s cookbooks, and then especially Child’s, led postwar America to better, fresher, and more sophisticated cooking. Like M.F., Beard and Child had experienced France and Europe as a revelation of taste, and they would bring those flavors to America in their recipes…. [along with a] growing interest in cocktail- and dinner-party entertaining, and in French cooking, both because people were traveling to Europe in larger numbers and because French chefs were setting up shop in America.
The interest wasn’t limited to high society restaurants and Manhattan penthouses. “The utopian idealism and anti-commercialism that defined the movement led quite naturally to the organic food movement, to health food, to baking your own bread… Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, had set in motion a new awareness and activism around environmental and food safety issues… It was a time of discovery. There was an expanding interest in ethnic food and international cooking – Chinese, Indian, regional Italian”.
The essential conflict of the book is best summarized here:
All this was percolating just as M.F., Chlid, Beck, Beard, and Jones gathered in Provence in December 1970… joined there by Richard Olney, [who] maintained an aura of authenticity – his recipes were uncompromising, pure and exciting — yet he rejected Cordon Bleu formality and restaurant traditionalism. He was an outsider to the American food world, a position he treasured, and he was also a snob, sure of his ultimately superior taste. During the time they all spent together, Olney’s personality would bring underlying conflicts to the surface: the democratization of taste versus the hard-earned judgments of snobbery; the new culinary freedom, informality, and experimentation versus doing things the old way; America versus France, in other words… And there was no better place to see it coming, to feel the sudden, moving fault lines, than in the steep, rocky hills of Provence in late 1970.
This book is a must-read for any American foodie, especially those enamored with France, French culture, and French food. In an age where style — fashion, food, art, you name it — is meticulously crafted on our behalf by the entertainment and media industry, it is refreshing to read of an organic evolution of the hearts and minds of the “Grand Titans of the Food World”, as Richard Olney refers to them, that led to the eventual groundswell shift in food culture as we know it today.
The reader is left certain that, if not for the time spent by these legends in Provence in the early 1970s, the whole food, farm-to-table movement would have never gotten off the ground. The Food Network, with its celebrity chefs as style icons, would be a shadow of its current self. “Fusion” restaurants and international cuisines in midwestern high school cafeterias would be a distant dream.
“Croissants in a cafe” by Jakub at foodiesfeed
Barr visits Provence in 2010, reflecting on the place it all began. The passage of time had made it all clear:
This was where it had all started, for Child, Olney, M.F., Beard and Beck — not their love of France, or of cooking, but their embrace of casual, improvised meals, outdoor eating, and the primacy of fresh herbs and seasonal ingredients… leaving behind a cacophonous, booming food culture — from celebrity chefs and the Food Network to organic, locally sourced restaurant menus and artisanal sausages and picked for sale at the Farmer’s Market. There is more good food and cooking than ever in America, and more hype, spectacle, money, moralizing, and pontificating too — much of the discussion still circling around the same undying questions of authenticity, elitism, and taste that divided Child, Olney and the others… Metaphorically speaking, they had thrown open the doors to a welcoming, unintimidating, casual cooking.
If not for Provence, 1970, foodwithaview.com might not exist. Now that’s food for thought.
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