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Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste Paperback – 4 Nov 2014

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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Wonderful Book about Turning Point in American Cooking 11 Aug. 2013
By Janet Perry - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When I read books about this period and the change from heavily-sauced French "haute cuisine" to the fresher flavors of today's cooking, it makes me realize how deeply and completely I was influenced by the three main characters in this book: Julia Child, James Beard, and MFK Fisher.

In fact, those three, plus Craig Claiborne, introduced me to the glories of food and cooking when I was in college. Starting with The Art of Eating, which I bought because of the writing, not the subject, I learned early and took it to heart that food should be fresh, food should be joyous, and that eating is a big part of the art of living.

What I am only beginning to realize, through books like this, is how revolutionary these notions were. Coming together in December 1970 in Provence, these three influential food writers, plus Richard Olney (an American expat and cookbook writer), they looked at a country and cuisine they loved and realized that they, as Americans, could add something wonderful to the conversation about food.

They realized that French food had become too complex, too rarified, and too rigid. But it could be so much more. If they added a deep respect for ingredients, an emphasis on freshness and easy preparation, and some of the meting pot of America, something might happen.

It turned out that something was a very good thing indeed.

Written by Fisher's great-nephew, this book looks at the things that happened, how they affected Beard, Child, and Fisher, and what came of it. The books is beautifully and affectionately written and thoroughly researched. I just loved it.

If you have ever wondered why we eat the way we do, read this book and you'll know.
74 of 84 people found the following review helpful
American Cuisine's Awkward Stage 29 July 2013
By takingadayoff - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Anybody out there remember the suburbs in the 1960s? The food, I mean? We had roasts and burgers and tuna casseroles and franks & beans. If we wanted exotic food, we went to the neighborhood Italian restaurant for lasagna or pizza, or to the Chinese restaurant for chop suey. There were no Thai restaurants or Indian restaurants or Greek restaurants. In California we had Mexican restaurants, but they were non-existent outside the Southwest. Hawaiian food was available - in Hawaii.

If you were inclined to adventurous cooking, you were limited by what was available at the market - and in most American towns it was almost impossible to find olive oil or lettuce other than iceberg. Cheese came in three flavors - American, Swiss, and Cheddar.

The premise of Luke Barr's book is that when the major American food personalities of the time arrived in Provence in late 1970, it was the threshold of a change in American dining. He makes a case that those writers (Julia Child, Richard Olney, James Beard, and Barr's great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher) were drivers of that change.

My initial reaction to the notion that several food writers could change the way America ate, was skepticism. But when I recalled how limited our diets were then by today's standards, I had to concede that something caused that change. Maybe it was those few personalities or maybe they were just quick to see what was already happening and jumped on board. Either way, we get to spend a couple of months in Provence with an outspoken bunch of characters.

Barr's access to M.F.K. Fisher's papers make this an original work, since much of his research revolves around a detailed diary that she kept while in Provence that year. Her daily letters to her confidante/lover provided more detail. Fortunately for us, letter writing was more common in 1970 and apparently the correspondents neglected to throw out all those letters, which must have filled quite a few shoeboxes.

As much as these food writers were immersed in French cooking, they were still very much American. Some of them had had it with food and wine snobbery. While Fisher was deciding to stop writing so much about the past, Julia Child decided to expand beyond French cuisine. James Beard, as big a presence as Child, tried to define American cooking. They cooked and talked, argued, drank wine, ate and talked some more. And for a while, we get to sit in on the conversation.
45 of 54 people found the following review helpful
Why you should put mayonnaise on your roast beef po'-boy 15 Aug. 2013
By Steve Schwartz - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In 1970, food writers M. F. K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Judith Jones, and Richard Olney found themselves in Provence at roughly the same time, meeting with and talking to one another. The first five had established a beachhead in changing American home cooking, in the Fifties full of canned cream of mushroom soup, canned spaghetti, canned fried onions, molded Jell-O salads, and mini-marshmallows. Fresh produce was limited in variety and availability, mainly because few people demanded it. It was extremely difficult to buy a loaf of bread that *couldn't* last weeks on a supermarket shelf. Even small mom-and-pop bakeries produced a bread as close to genuine bread as Pringles are to potato chips. "Convenience" guided the home cook. M. F. K. Fisher created an American yearning for good food, mainly by recalling her tours of France. James Beard, with a basis of real home cooking and an apprenticeship in France, provided mostly simple recipes that emphasized fresh ingredients and celebrated not only France, but classics of American regional cuisine and regional ingredients. Julia Child and Simone Beck provided step-by-step instruction (more Julia than Simone) which enabled the American home cook to master certain dishes and techniques of French cuisine. Judith Jones, their editor at Knopf and one of their volunteer testers, was instrumental in getting Mastering the Art of French Cooking and other influential cookbooks published. Richard Olney came along a bit later, railing against "theatrical restaurant cuisine" and setting up the French home kitchen as the culinary ideal. He approached French cooking almost like a Zen discipline -- a way of thought, rather than a set of procedures. His recipes weren't necessarily simple, but they did claim authenticity.

By 1970, good cooking in the U.S. meant mainly French cooking, thanks to these six. However, a change was in the air, and almost every one of the six had ideas on what should happen next. They divided into two opposing camps: democratic vs. elite. Fisher, Beard, and Child wanted to open things up. Beck and Olney wanted to recover and preserve a French classical tradition, in their eyes the "best" tradition -- so "best" indeed that no other cuisine was worth thinking about.

Olney (and his close friend, historian Sybille Bedford) thought both Beard and Child "show-biz" shams and Fisher "weak-minded," although never to their faces. He and Bedford indulged in cat sessions, sniggering up their sleeves, achieving all the moral stature of poison-pen writers. He cruelly disparaged Beard's knife skills (Beard suffered from severe joint pain, due to his weight) and didn't think Child a cook at all. His turn against Fisher seems to have come from his dislike of her liberal politics, strong on civil rights for minorities and concerned about increasing poverty in the US. He combined in himself incredible insecurity, massive resentment of the trio's high place in gastronomy, and truly repugnant self-satisfaction. It's his insecurities that prevent him from becoming a monstrous caricature.

Simone Beck was concerned about authentic French-ness. She would pronounce "It's not French" on any part of a recipe that displeased her, even though she often forgot it was her own recipe. She thought Child's insistence on measures ridiculous (Olney agreed), although that's how most Americans cook to this day. For her and Olney, cooking was an art, largely intuitive. A chef showed mastery in his artistic assemblage of menus and ingredients -- to be able to look at a nearly empty refrigerator and to come up with a lovely lunch -- the subtle connection that potatoes, leeks, cream, etc. make vichyssoise. It's an admirable goal, but one that probably takes years of experience to achieve. Furthermore, neither she nor Olney ever understood that certain ingredients (pigs and chickens raised a certain way, flour, butter, charcuterie, bread, and so on) were -- and to some extent still are -- unavailable in the U.S.

Beard turned his attention to regional American cooking, coming out with his masterpiece American Cookery. Although his grand design, an attempt to come up with a consistent theory of American cuisine, was probably misguided in a society of so many different ethnicities, he focused serious attention on native cooking traditions. Olney (an American himself) thought the book irrelevant to decent cuisine.

Child opened up her view of food, while keeping a French base. She became less concerned with a mystical notion of French-ness than on leading the American home cook to become comfortable cooking good food. She also became more personal in her cooking style.

Fisher was always as much about living well as an ethical value as about French food. Furthermore, she began to feel that classic French food was more about nostalgia and looking back on an ideal past than about the present. Even in France, cooking was changing, not necessarily for the better. She may not have known what was coming 'round the bend, but she was eager to meet it.

It turns out that the democrats proved more right than the elitists. We recognize food cultures other than French -- particularly Asian -- as a source for great eating. Creole, Cajun, and Low Country cooking are rich American troves of fantastic tastes and dishes.

All of the above drily recites the intellectual background behind a lively gathering of grand and influential personalities. Luke Barr, M. F. K. Fisher's great-nephew, writes brightly and lucidly. He has the advantage of access to Fisher's journals of the relevant period, and she was a compulsive and detailed diarist. One gets a sense of "this has just happened" throughout. To a great extent, however, we get events largely through the filter of M. F. K. Fisher's sensibility, although Barr does try to give opposing views. He's just not as convincing a writer as his great-aunt. But that's a very high bar. In any case, he *has* come up with an entertaining book that moves like a page-turner novel.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
A Pleasant Journey 4 Aug. 2013
By William R. Franklin - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In an era when the most commonly used kitchen instrument in this country was the can opener and "creative" American cooks were using unthickened Campbell's mushroom soup as a sauce, a small group of American writers were valiantly working to convince their fellow countrymen to learn how to cook, to use fresh, natural products and prepare them with the appropriate care.

This book centres around an almost chance meeting of four of these individuals, M. K. F. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and Richard Olney, in Provence in 1970. Relying on Fisher's excellent memory (perhaps a bit too excellent) and some notes he discovered (she was his great-aunt), Mr. Barr provides a detailed account of what they talked about and, of course, what they ate and drank. Amidst descriptions of fine meals, we find amusing anecdotes of Olney's snobbishness, Beard's failed diet and rifts between Child and her co-author Simone Beck, which food aficionados will no doubt find entertaining.

Mr. Barr writes in an easy style that only occasionally becomes tiresome. If you see it through to the end, you will find many enjoyable moments.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A masterwork of memoir, time and a food revolution 14 Oct. 2013
By Quickbeam - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I chose this book with a lot of trepidation. My experience with memoirs written by family members has not been so terrific. However, Luke Barr has done it perfectly; just enough familial history to make sense. Barr seamlessly transitions from a grand-nephew to a historian and memoirist of the highest order. This book is riveting, delightful and instructive. The people whose books line my kitchen come alive with warmth and foible.

I was 15 in 1970 and recall very well the food culture of the time in America. The key players in this book literally changed how America ate, cooked and saw food. This book is simply alive with time and place. Throhg this book I feel France of that era with all my senses.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves food, the giants of cooking or even a well told travel tale. Barr has done a brilliant job here; this book was a privilege to read.
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