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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.