Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American TasteProvence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a run last week, I saw a hummingbird at rest on the bough of a blackberry bush. Such a rare treat to see this tiny thumb of shimmering green and red in repose instead of as a darting blur at the hanging basket of flowers on our front patio. I paused to watch him on the gently swaying bough. In three heartbeats, he was gone.

Provence, 1970 is about recognizing the hummingbird at rest. It is about capturing a moment in time and holding it in freeze frame, before it darts away to catch up with the world. The moment and place and (most of) the players are evident in the book’s title. Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher’s grandnephew and an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, offers a bird’s eye view into a movement on the threshold of change.

The movement is, of course, America’s relationship to food. The change afoot in Provence, 1970 is the shift away from European—predominantly French—sensibilities, toward an embrace of the organic, local movements combined with an increasingly global palate.

Food is perhaps the most vibrant reflection of culture and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

Most tender and intimate is Barr’s treatment of M.F.K. Fisher. She is the central character, a women in her sixties on the cusp of a life shift. Her children are grown, her career is comfortable, she is content to be without a husband. But she does need a home. When her house in Napa sells, a friend offers to build her a cottage on his property in Sonoma. She’d long planned to live out her older years in Provence, but now that this time is upon her, she wonders if modern France holds the same magic as the one of her memory. Her months in Provence, while she awaits the construction of the Sonoma house, become a meditation on the acceptance of letting go of the past and embracing a fresh start.

The author’s portrayals of M.F., the Childs, James Beard, Richard Olney and numerous secondary players are rich, savory, bitter and sweet. He shows the internal conflicts these talented and passionate chefs and writers wrestle as their relationships to food and France shift and indulges the reader with good old-fashioned gossip as he details their conflicts with each other. Julia’s increasingly fraught relationship with her co-author Simone Beck is not news, but Barr shows how it is viewed through the eyes of her contemporaries. He shows what it means to be a snob (Richard Olney), a bon vivant (James Beard), and a sensualist (M.F.K. Fisher) and how a small group of Americans excel at being more French than the French themselves.

And the food. Some of Luke Barr’s most delicious, vivid and even hilarious writing is in the descriptions of meals prepared and consumed throughout Provence during these winter months. It is at once a celebration of and a primer on Provençal cuisine, with unparalleled scenery, tart conversation and raw observation to set the mood.

Provence, 1970 shows the beauty of capturing time just at the moment it hovers between the past and the present. Of course, we never realize the importance of such moments until they are long gone. Luke Barr does the nearly impossible: he conjures up the hummingbird and holds it in his hand just long enough for us to recognize the wonder of stillness before change.

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Provence, 2009

Provence, 2009