In his debut, Travel & Leisure editor Barr revisits a pivotal moment in culinary history with a brio and attention to detail that rivals that of his subjects.
In 1970, when ardent Francophiles Julia and Paul Child, Richard Olney, M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard convened in Provence, a pantheon of American food writers inspired by all things French were to experience not only a transition in their perceptions of Gallic primacy, but the first stirrings of a revolution in American gastronomy—a revolution they helped bring into being, fired almost as much by contentiousness as amity. Barr, Fisher’s great-nephew, reveals how these encounters within a rather insular coterie happened more or less by accident but at an incendiary time, when American attitudes toward its own culture were alight with change. The author also demonstrates how these writers, challenging themselves to temper nostalgia and embrace new ideas, opened a door to a seductive philosophy of simple pleasures that led directly to today’s pervasive “foodie” ethic: cooking as a practical but rewarding art form. Their respective cookbooks and Child’s immensely popular TV show encouraged Americans to celebrate their gustatory diversity, gravitate to fresh and organic ingredients, learn more sophisticated but accessible techniques, and enjoy a growing sense of liberation from old ways—even autocratic French ones. Barr chronicles this demystification process by focusing on how this group of strong personalities reacted to a fortuitous point in time. He does so in such an immediate, inviting way that one feels a member of the party, privy to the conversations, the meals, the generous gestures and corrosive rivalries. The author’s most invaluable resource was a 1970 journal kept by Fisher, who emerges as the linchpin of the book.
Warmly written, balanced but unsparing in its portraits, and culminating in a touching coda, Barr’s persuasive book overcomes the occasional longueur to offer an enhanced appreciation of some groundbreaking cooks and their acolytes.