When M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child and James Beard dined together, they exchanged much more than recipes. According to Luke Barr, author of Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, the flow of ideas and Bordeaux over the course of a winter holiday unleashed a sea change: the rejection of Old World values (i.e., French cuisine) by American tastemakers bent on building a new, democratic indigenous cuisine.
Barr, an editor at Travel + Leisure, was motivated by matters of the heart and stomach in his pursuit of the story. Fisher is his great-aunt, and he shares her professed pleasure (The Gastronomical Me, How to Cook a Wolf, et al.) in the sensuality of cooking and sharing a fine meal. Thus he brings a fan’s affection and familial love to the telling—as well as insider access to private writings. “Her personality in her letters is quite different from her personality in her writing,” Barr says. “Her writing is slightly opaque and stylized, beautiful and artful, and then her letters are much more direct, funny and gossipy. She was a great writer, and she was also a human being.” What Fisher writes in her own defense may caution the modern reader as well. “ ‘Their titillation from some of what I have written over the past forty years is their problem, not mine!’ ” Barr quotes.
In Barr’s mélange of research, letters are the key ingredients. He traveled to the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, which holds the papers of Child, Fisher, Simone Beck, and British food writer and friend Elizabeth David—a charming, witty and prolific group. (The lucky find of Fisher’s personal journal from her European voyage was an invaluable addition that inspired the cover art.) The letters of Beard, Paul Child, pioneering chef and cookbook author Richard Olney and others contribute to a multilateral account of the meals and meetings. “Their letters gave me this very direct and rich view of what happened,” says Barr, who compiled a thick file of primary source material for each chapter. “I started to memorize all of this material, somehow internalize it. That allowed me then to write the scenes in a sort of natural narrative way—I wanted it to read like a novel,” he says.
But the narrative is not forged at the expense of authenticity. Every quotation in the book is culled from a letter or memoir and attributed. That includes Olney’s infamous insults. Barr recounts a particular snarkfest via correspondence with Beck. Olney on Beard: "A pompous buffoon." And more on M.F.: "A pathetic creature." And on Child: "Bitter...irrationally anti-French." In blowing off some Francophile steam, Olney, an American, stands in contrast to compatriots Fisher, Beard and Child. “[Olney] plays the role of villain, which is a necessary one, although I adore him, too, and think in the end he becomes, in a way, a hero—the one who most clearly points the way towards the future at that moment,” says Barr. As described in the bo
ok, the future is “combining culinary influences in an easygoing way...and highlighting the freshest ingredients.” He credits From Julia Child’s Kitchen, Beard on Bread and, ironically, Olney’s Simple French Food with fomenting it.
To get the full flavor of those heady weeks, Barr rented the Childs’ Provençal cottage, La Pitchoune, in the summer of 2010, and arrived with four generations of family, including his grandmother Norah, who accompanied M.F. to France in 1970. “It was funny. In 1970 my great-aunt was here, James Beard, Judith Jones, they were all here together—and here we were in that same kitchen,” says Barr, who made good use of it for the duration of the visit. “We had cooked with an eye on the past, on what they had transmitted to us, but having absorbed that legacy, we had remade it in the present—in a way that I felt sure would have been approved of by M.F. and Child,” he writes.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.