Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

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

L’Excuse (or, I play the Fool)

I may as well put it out here first thing. Because I can’t think about anything else until I come clean. I haven’t been writing. Not, “I haven’t been writing recently.” Or, “It’s been days since I’ve written.” No. I haven’t written in weeks. Weeks. Not quite months –  I smashed together a couple of flash fiction pieces in March and April. A few book reviews. Does a restaurant review count? No, I didn’t think so.

I do have a reason. Reason, a variant of Excuse. Excuse happens to be the term for “the Fool” in French Tarot. If you hold L’Excuse, you can play the card on any trick you wish, but L’Excuse can never win the trick. How very à propos. So, here’s my Excuse.

I was studying for the Level 3 (Advanced) Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. I sat the exam on Sunday. I think I passed. It was wicked and hard. I remembered that Grenouilles is a Chablis Grand Cru but forgot that Vougeot is in the Côte de Nuits; I knew that Coonawara’s terra rossa makes smashing Cabernet sauvignon, but couldn’t for the life of me remember the principle Sauvignon blanc production region in Chile (Casablanca, wine fans). Fortunately, essay questions made up the bulk of the exam. Once I started writing, I felt on solid ground. Except that the written portion of the exam took place AFTER the blind tasting. With all that ** and ** sloshing around in me (at least I hope to God that’s what those wines were; it was a blind tasting after all! And we’re asked not to offer any identifications until we receive the exam results. In three months.), I was in prime form. Off I went to write how to cultivate and vinify grapes for a botrytized wine.

From the end of February, I devoted my weekends (and evenings when I could muster the energy) to a growing stack of flashcards, to notes in a carefully plotted rainbow of ink colors, to maps of regions and charts of processes, to diagrams of Coffey and pot stills, to drawings of Vertical Shoot Positioning with replacement-cane vs. cordon-spur pruning.

But Sunday afternoon, when I turned in my exam materials and the borrowed #2 pencil, the need to keep appellations, classifications, soil types, climatic conditions, aging requirements and vinification procedures nestled in drawers in my brain came to an end.

Yes, my day job involves wine. And beer (I prefer an informal approach to studying the glorious world of malt and hops. It involves a bottle, a glass and an opener). But the WSET certificate was far more than a professional endeavor. This continuation of my wine education, which began formally at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine in 2006 and informally at a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris in 1990, made me ever more passionate about wine (and its more rough-and-tumble cousin, spirits – all that rectifying and reflux makes it the more masculine of pursuits). It was a way to connect the intellect with the heart. So much of what inspires me about wine is intuitive and sensory – after years of tasting with intent – or has come from my experiences traveling and living in regions known for wine production, from personal relationships with winemakers and farmers and of course, from my own experiences in vineyards.

But truth be told, there were days and nights when I ached to write and I turned away from the computer and from my notebook nearly every time, to refocus my attention on my multi-colored notes and highlighted text. And I felt like a fraud each time. I had that twitchiness you get after you haven’t worked out for a few days. The twitchiness turns all too soon to lethargy; writing chops atrophy just like blood-and-sinew muscles. You stop using them long enough and they stop caring much about what you do.

But if you aren’t too far out of shape, it takes just a few weeks of consistent workouts to feel those lean muscles forming underneath your lazy fat. You stand a little straighter, your lungs don’t empty out so soon, your find yourself craving…

…the pen, the keyboard, the rush of words that push at your synapses and burst from your fingertips as you pelt at the keys. I can’t say that the more I write, the easier it gets. But the more I write, I want to write more often. The general idea is to get better at it.

Last week a stranger who is considering hiking in Ireland contacted me via a mutual friend. I’ve hiked in Ireland several times; Brendan and I are returning in September to hike the Kerry Peninsula. So, I wrote Heather a general e-mail about what to take, how to approach the experience and what to expect. It was a packing list with anecdotes. Here’s what she wrote in reply:

Dear Julie:

First of all, wow.  Just … wow.  You write so beautifully.  I don’t know what you do for a living, but if it doesn’t involve writing, you should quit whatever it is you are doing and change careers.  Immediately.  I’ve read this email three times now and I get more excited about the trip with each read-through.  Thank you!

No, Heather. Thank YOU. Shit. But I love my day job. All that wine…

And so I return. I set aside the formal pursuit of one passion and turn my soul to its other calling. It’s going to take a few painful, exhausting workouts to get back in shape. I knew this was coming. I just have to begin. To write.

I think I’ll have a beer first.