Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Provence, 1970

Oh, to be a fly on the wall ! How many times do we utter that old statement when we wish we could be present at key points in time with famous or infamous folk ? Luke Barr has given his readers the distinct feeling of being that fly on the wall in the kitchens, restaurants, dining rooms, and offices of the key bon vivants, food writers, and culinary icons of 20th century American foodie culture. His gleanings from his great-aunt's notebooks, letters, diaries, and business correspondence have given him a rich source from which to weave an overlapping picture of a meeting of the foodie greats in Provence during 1970.

From M.F.K. Fisher's (Barr's relation) travels between Paris and Provence with her sister, Norah to momentous meals with Richard Olney to rescuing James Beard from the diet clinic and taking him to Julia and Paul Child's La Pitchoune for a French-style chicken dinner and wine feast, the reader is treated to the events, the commentary between the players, the rivalries and side bar ranting about each other, and insight into their growing notion of a burgeoning American cuisine that takes its roots from the rigor of French food preparation techniques, a use of the freshest seasonal food items, and a more fluid and flexible use of what's available in developing menus and less reliance on strict recipe regimen. We see the peckishness of Beard, who bridles at having to address his health problems and struggles to make a dietary lifestyle change, the overt snobbishness of Richard Olney when he dines with the Childs and M.F.K. Fisher, the ruminations of Julia Child as she makes the transition from 'the French chef' to embracing more techniques from world cultures and their cuisines and thus, opens the way for American cuisine to develop its melting pot persona. It's all a fun and almost gossipy romp through those few weeks when the greats converged on the south of France and cooked their way toward a bit of a food revolution.

This has been an intriguing book with a strange consequence. The evening before I reached the chapter on the dinner at Julia and Paul Child's French vacation home, I made SB and I a dinner of roasted chicken, potatoes, and green beans. Far humbler than Julia's roasted chicken, gratin dauphinois pommes de terre, and haricots verts, but the same main ingredients just the same! I do think I will be making her gratin dauphinois potatoes soon, as a tribute to the grande dame of American cuisine and all her cohorts.

Good job, Luke Barr.

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