Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

Provence, 1970
Evolution is a funny thing. Most times it creeps along at a snail’s pace, but every once in a while you can jab a finger at the calendar and say, “Aha! It started there.” Such it is with the evolution of American cuisine. It’s hard to believe, but it wasn’t that long ago when food was bound by strict regional borders. People in Los Angeles wouldn’t recognize jambalaya if it stood up and shouted “True dat!”  Bagels outside of New York City were represented by Lenders. They make a very fine doorstop, but cardboard has more flavor. Ahi? Burritos? JalapeƱo? Quinoa? Masala? Funny kind of words…They’re food, you say? And where exactly would I get the ingredients? Certainly, not nearby.
Taste and refinement in food preparation were represented by French cuisine. Quel domage, but the American palate was certainly not up to par. Even the most celebrated food writers had an unabashed love affair with France. M. K. F. Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard sung its praises. Then came that fateful summer of 1970 in Provence when all that changed.

Luke Barr is the great-nephew of the late food writer M. K. F. Fisher. With access to her private correspondence and the letters from other food writers during that summer, he pens an affectionate account of how their changing attitudes about what’s on their plates affected a cultural revolution in American eating habits. French classical cuisine had always been more descriptive and fussy than precise. By 1970, social upheaval was rearranging the fabric of America. Old prejudices were being challenged every day with the need to question authority. M. K. F. Fisher and the other American writers began to grow disillusioned with stodgy gastronomic regimes and the steadfast insistence the Old World way was the only way. Why not bring change to cooking as well?

Provence, 1970 tells the story of a group of charming, argumentative, people with gusto for both life and food who stood at the forefront of the revolution in American cooking. It’s an enjoyable book, written with a great eye for detail. Barr weaves together their stories as they each come to a revolution in thinking where “…The result would be something entirely new, combining the je ne sais quoi and self-assurance of France and the open-minded, can-do accessibility of America.”

One warning: Do not read this book when hungry.

As I cooked in the kitchen of La Pitchoune, I could sense their presence, all of them—Julia at the stove; Paul opening wine; Beard, M. F., Jones, and Olney gathered around, offering advice and opinions and judgments. They spoke to me in their books and recipes, in the same way that my mother’s voice accompanies me in the kitchen. It was my mother, who died a few years ago, who taught me how to cook. And when I make something she made for me, or with me, I feel her presence—not in any littoral or even ghostly way, but in the form of an atmospheric shift, an emotional warmth. It is striking how cooking binds us to the past, and to the people we love, even when they’re gone.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.