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

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Provence, 1970 is about a singular historic moment. In the winter of that year, more or less coincidentally, the iconic culinary figures James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Richard Olney, Simone Beck, and Judith Jones found themselves together in the South of France. They cooked and ate, talked and argued, about the future of food in America, the meaning of taste, and the limits of snobbery. Without quite realizing it, they were shaping today’s tastes and culture, the way we eat now. The conversations among ...

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

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Provence, 1970 is about a singular historic moment. In the winter of that year, more or less coincidentally, the iconic culinary figures James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Richard Olney, Simone Beck, and Judith Jones found themselves together in the South of France. They cooked and ate, talked and argued, about the future of food in America, the meaning of taste, and the limits of snobbery. Without quite realizing it, they were shaping today’s tastes and culture, the way we eat now. The conversations among this group were chronicled by M.F.K. Fisher in journals and letters—some of which were later discovered by Luke Barr, her great-nephew. In Provence, 1970, he captures this seminal season, set against a stunning backdrop in cinematic scope—complete with gossip, drama, and contemporary relevance.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

If it hadn't happened, a screen writer might have conjured up the scenario: Provence, 1970. Five luminaries of American cuisine share one month of company, cooking, meals, and conversations in the South of France. Only later will it become fully apparent that this convergence of M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Richard Olney, and Simone Beck will affect each and, in turn, irrevocably reshape our national food culture. In this exciting act of recapture, Luke Barr uses his grand-aunt M.F.K. Fisher's journals and letters and other documentation to invite us to feasts with this superlative crew. Editor's recommendation.

The New York Times Book Review - Christine Muhlke
Through Fisher's diaries and letters, plus those of the others present (not to mention well-known books on the subjects), [Luke Barr] assembles a fascinating narrative.
Publishers Weekly
M.F.K. Fisher’s great-nephew Barr, a Travel + Leisure editor, uses considerable research to recreate a momentous convergence of preeminent American food writers in Provence in the fall of 1970 that determined not only the trajectory of their subsequent careers but the direction of American food culture as well. France, of course, was the training ground for these writers, starting with Fisher and her bold, sensual 1937 primer on eating, Serve It Forth; journalist James Beard and his 1952 Paris Cuisine; Julia Child and Simone Beck with their wildly popular 1961 landmark, Mastering the Art of French Cooking; artist and longtime Francophile Richard Olney and his authentic, passionate The French Menu Cookbook. Yet as of 1970, they were all still finding their voices and styles. While Olney lived permanently in Sollies-Toucas, the Childs and Becks had adjacent country houses at La Pitchoune, and the others were visiting nearby Provencal towns, joined by their longtime Knopf editor Judith Jones, her husband, and a prickly aristocratic couple, Eda Lord and Sybille Bedford. The personalities mixed uneasily, like oil and water, during long, elaborate communal dinners held at various group members’ homes. Barr, a felicitous stylist, derives much of his account from Fisher’s journal of the time, when she was in her early 60s, living a solitary existence between California and France, and trying to settle on her next literary project: French or American? Barr finds delightful fodder for foodies. (Oct.)
Library Journal
In winter 1970, culinary icons M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Simone Beck, and Richard Olney all found themselves in Provence, France. This period was a turning point both for these figures and for the culture of food. The previously unquestioned French superiority was losing its grip on American cooking. Fisher and Child especially were growing tired of the snobbery and rigidity of traditional French cuisine. Attitudes in America were also changing: great food no longer had to be French, cooking was becoming more liberated, and chefs began to experiment with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Barr, Fisher's great-nephew, pieces together the events of that winter from diaries and letters, chronicling the dinner parties that took place and the food that was eaten. Readers are also made privy to the dynamics of the group, such as what these chefs thought about one another and the frustrations they experienced. While each figure is highlighted, Fisher is clearly the focus. VERDICT Despite the readable and intimate style, this title will likely be of interest to only the most dedicated Fisher fan or food history buff.—Melissa Stoeger, Deerfield P.L., IL
From the Publisher
“Luke Barr has inherited the clear and inimitable voice of his great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher, and deftly portrays a crucial turning point in the history of food in America with humor, intimacy and deep perception. This book is beautifully written and totally fascinating to me, because these were my mentors—they inspired a generation of cooks in this country.” —Alice Waters
“Luke Barr conjures the past and pries open the window on a little known moment in time that had profound implications on how we live today. With an insider’s access, a detective’s curiosity, and a poet’s sensitivity, he illuminates a culinary clique that not only changed the way we eat, but how we think about food. Provence, 1970 is as much a meditation on the nature of transition and the role of friendship, as it is on the power of food to unite, divide, and ultimately nourish the soul. For this a ‘non-foodie’ it was a revelation—for the connoisseur among us, it may well be orgiastic.” —Andrew McCarthy, author of The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down
“Luke Barr has brought the icons of the food world vibrantly to life and captured the moment when their passion for what's on the plate sparked a cultural breakthrough.  His graceful prose provides a thorough, affecting account of their talents and reveals how their disparate personalities defined the very essence of French cuisine.” —Bob Spitz, author of Dearie
“Brilliant conversation, dimmed lights, culinary intrigue, urchin mousse, a glass of Sauternes . . . Luke Barr has written one of the most delicious and sensuous books of all time. It brims with love of food and wine.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Super Sad True Love Story

“Luke Barr has written a lovely, shimmering, immersive secret history of an important moment that nobody knew was important at the time.”
—Kurt Andersen
“Luke Barr has written a wonderful, sun-dappled account of the pleasures of cooking and eating in good company. With the deftest of touches, he describes a gathering of celebrated chefs—including Julia Child, his great-aunt M. F. K. Fisher, James Beard, and Richard Olney—and the way their American palates transformed French culinary rules for a homegrown audience. Both a meditation on the power of friendship and the uses of nostalgia, Provence, 1970 is the kind of book you want to linger with as long as possible.”
—Daphne Merkin

“Luke Barr paints an intimate portrait of the ambitious, quarrelsome, funny, hungry pioneers who brought about a great culinary shift—the ending of the classical era, and the beginning of a newly experimental, wide-ranging, ambitious cuisine, one that was inspired by France but was quintessentially American in style and flavor. Provence, 1970 gives a front-row seat to the creation of modern American cooking.”
—Alex Prud'homme, co-author with Julia Child of My Life in France

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307718341
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/22/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 21,864
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Luke Barr is an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine. A great-nephew of M.F.K. Fisher, he was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Switzerland, and graduated from Harvard. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two daughters.

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Read an Excerpt


All Alone

December 20, 1970

m. f. k. fisher walked into the lobby at the Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles trailed by a bellhop.

Famously beautiful in her youth--she'd been photographed by Man Ray, and peered out glamorously from her book jackets--M.F. was still a striking woman. Her long gray hair was pinned up in an elegant twist at the back of her head, her eyebrows were pencil thin, and she was dressed in a tailored Marchesa di Grésy suit and a wool overcoat. She made her way to the front desk to check in. The decor was Provençal rustic, almost cliché, with tiled floors and wrought-iron chandeliers. She'd been here years ago, and it hadn't changed a bit. Her heels made echoing noises in the empty lobby. It was the week before Christmas 1970, and the weather was unusually cold. She had the distinct impression of being the only guest at the hotel. The place was a tomb.

The tall man at the front desk was vaguely hostile. He was sullen, but, then, that seemed to be the default posture of French service personnel in general, at least when it came to Americans during the off season. Veiled contempt. He explained that the room she had written ahead to request--one facing the Place du Forum--would be too cold at this time of year. He did not apologize for the lack of heat, he simply stated it as a fact.

She asked to see for herself, and he was right: the heat was off in that part of the hotel, which was noticeably colder. And so she chose a room at the back of the building, on the first floor. It was named for Jean Cocteau (there was a small brass nameplate on the door), and inside was the largest armoire she'd ever seen. It must have been twelve feet tall. It was grotesque, she decided, but she liked it for the audacity of its scale.

The bed was comfortable, so there was that.

She unpacked her things, three suitcases' worth, clothes for every occasion and weather, multiple pairs of shoes, books, and assorted papers, all of which fit easily in the enormous armoire. There was a writing table and a chair, and a photograph of Cocteau on the wall. She sat for a moment in the silence of the suddenly foreign room, looking at the quaint toile de Jouy wallpaper, and then withdrew from her purse a new notebook--small, pale green, spiral-bound. On the inside cover, she inscribed the words


in underlined capital letters. Where was she indeed? And why? She'd spent the previous weeks in the mostly pleasant company of family and friends, having traveled from Northern California to southern France with her sister Norah Barr, and then finding herself swept up in an epic social and culinary maelstrom, which seemed to involve everyone who was anyone in the American food world. Julia Child and her husband, Paul. James Beard. Simone Beck and her husband, Jean Fischbacher. Richard Olney. Judith Jones and her husband, Evan. Together they had cooked and eaten, talked and gossiped, and driven around the countryside to restaurants and museums and to the incredibly beautiful chapel that Matisse designed in the late 1940s.

She had left all that behind at the crack of dawn this morning. Raymond Gatti, the local chauffeur she knew well from a previous trip, had picked her up in his Mercedes and delivered her to the Cannes train station, telling her repeatedly that they would be far too early for the ten o'clock train. But she didn't care. She preferred to be early: she had a great fondness for leisurely hours in train station cafés. And most of all, she was eager to get away and be on her own. She needed to write, think, and figure out what she wanted.

In her new journal, underneath WHERE...

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Luke Barr, Author of Provence, 1970

What inspired you to write Provence, 1970?

I was writing a story about Provence for Travel + Leisure magazine, where I am an editor. And I ended up visiting La Pitchoune, the vacation house that Paul and Julia Child built in Plascassier on the estate of her co-author Simone Beck in the mid-1960s. The house is now owned by former student of Beck's, Kathie Alex, who teaches cooking classes there. Anyway, as I was researching and writing the story, I discovered that my great-aunt, the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, had visited Beck and the Childs at La Pitchoune in December of 1970, and that James Beard had also been there, and so had Richard Olney, and so had Judith Jones, the editor at Knopf who had discovered Child, and worked with most of the others. So here were all of the seminal figures of the American food world, together in Provence,? eating, drinking, arguing, gossiping.... And I thought: what a wonderful, almost cinematic moment.

In researching the book, you relied heavily on material from your great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher's journal, as well as letters and correspondence from M.F., Julia Child, and James Beard, among others. What were some things that you discovered during your research that surprised you?

The letters were full of surprises. First of all how prolific they all were as writers. They wrote often, and at great length. And they could really be quite elegant and witty. Paul Child, for example, wrote brilliantly-observed and sometimes philosophical letters. Or descriptions of what it was like shooting Julia's "French Chef" TV show in color versus black and white, or sardonic descriptions of movie stars at the Cannes film festival. Most surprising to me were the letters of M.F., which were so different in style to her usual prose. It turns out that she was carrying on a long distance love affair with Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor of Esquire, and they wrote each other letters every day. (I can't overstate how crucial these letters were in my research, since it was through them that I discovered so much about the day-to-day events I was writing about.) The letters are chatty and amusing and full of gossip, nothing like the sometimes elusive and elliptical pieces she wrote for The New Yorker.

The book tells the story of a specific season when these food icons came together. Was this the only time these figures converged for a notable period of time? Or is there a?Provence, 1976 in the works?
1970 was first time M.F., Julia Child and James Beard spent significant time together, and the first time M.F. and Beard met Richard Olney. There were certainly many other dinners over the years, both in Provence and back home in America. But this was only time I know of when the whole group was in Provence at the same time.

So no—there's no sequel in the works!

The book is filled with some very interesting and entertaining scenes and dialogue. What is your favorite scene from the book?

All of the scenes and dialogue—and everything in quotes—is from contemporaneous letters, journals, and interviews, and all of my sources are listed at the end of the book. I say this preemptively, since everything in my book is true! But I also tried very hard to re-create this moment in history and bring it to life in a novelistic way. One of my favorite scenes is Julia and Paul Child's arrival in France in mid-December, 1970. They ate lunch at the airport in Nice—something they always did—a kind of celebration of arrival, of being on vacation. They drank white wine, and after lunch Paul lit a Cuban cigar. Then they rented a car and drove to their vacation house. I found a letter Paul had written to his brother, describing the comically under-powered rental Renault, and the aggressive but skillful French drivers, which makes for an amusing scene.
What is your fondest memory of your great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and both my grandmother and her sister M.F. lived in Sonoma County. So on many weekends when I was a kid in the 1970s we would drive up to my grandmother's house in Jenner, and stop on the way at my great-aunt's house in Glen Ellen. We would have long lunches on the porch. I remember those lunches in the slightly dream-like way one remembers being nine or ten. I remember the dry, golden Sonoma summer heat, and the cool interior of M.F. house. But most of all I remember the look in her eyes when she spoke to me. I describe this in my book: "There was no condescension at all, but she left no doubt that she was at all times taking note. Of what you said, and how you said it, what you ate, and how quickly."

Who have you discovered lately?

I loved Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette—so funny, and heartfelt. And Patricia Wells' The French Kitchen Cookbook is beautiful and inspiring. I write at some length in my book about the Child's La Cornue oven, which they bought in the mid-1960s for their house in Provence. It was terribly expensive and magnificent, but always in need of repair. There are lots of funny letters between Julia, Beard and Richard Olney about the oven and how it was emitting great clouds of smoke and how to repair it... Anyway, I had no idea until I read Patricia's new book that SHE had ended up with the legendary Cornue, which she describes in a chapter called "A Treasure from a Mentor."

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 16, 2013

    If you have fond feelings for James, Julia, MFK Fisher etc, READ!

    Provence, 1970, is a visit to a past time when these famous people created an American cuisine.

    The book has sent me searching in many different areas. I'm pulling all my James Beard books, my Julia Child books, and my favorite food writer, MFK Fisher to the forefront. And how did I miss Richard Olney?! (I'm now making up for this lapse.)

    Reading this book is like a sentimental visit with old friends!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2014

    Insight into the gastronomes of the 70's

    Good insight into the personalities, rivalries and camaraderie among the high profile chefs who brought French cuisine into the American kitchen. Enjoyed getting to know these (in)famous characters from a different light!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2014

    Reading about these food gurus all being together has been a won

    Reading about these food gurus all being together has been a wonderful experience. Not many know about Richard Olney, but being  an Iowan, he has been a personal hero of mine. Now a good excuse for rereading works from Child, MFK Fisher, Beard and Olney!! Loved this book, although there really isn`t any plot.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2013

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