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‘Provence, 1970,’ a book review

Provence, 1970 book cover
Provence, 1970 book cover
Clarkson, Potter publishers

In late 1970, some of America’s greatest cooking figures all converged on and near a small estate in Provence, where they shared food, recipes and bitchy gossip. The doyenne of food journalism of the time, M.F.K. Fisher was perhaps the senior member of the crowd, having published dozens of books on food, eating and travel, and written columns for The New Yorker as well as for dozens of other magazines. Luke Barr, (Fisher was his great-aunt) found her small bound journal of that period and turned it into this fascinating story, Provence, 1970.

Also joining them that winter were Julia and Paul Child who had built a house on the property of Child’s co-author Simone Beck (“Simca”), James Beard, and Richard Olney as well as writers (and partners) Sybille Bedford and Eda Lord. The chefs create fascinating meals for each other, eat shared meals and talk about whoever isn’t there at the moment.

Central to the book is the atmosphere of Provence, which influenced each of them in their approaches to cooking and writing about it.

Child and Beck’s second magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume 2 was just about to come out, and we see the beginnings of the split between them, as Child was most interested in going her own way in cooking and considering cuisines other than the strictly French, while Beck was a French formalist, but a less rigorous measurer and tester.

Beard, one of the most influential food writers and cooks of the era was in poor health and severely overweight. We wonder at some points if he will make it to the end of the book. (He does, and actually lived several more years.) He is described as unfailingly kind to everyone who seeks his advice in person and on the telephone when he is at home in the US.

But what we see in each of these cooks and writers is a gradual evolution away from the influence of France to a broader vision of cooking, perhaps brought about by these weeks together eating and talking about the future of food.

Richard Olney was an intense, introverted, self-taught chef and painter who was well known among the food crowd, but became even more well known and respected because of his acquaintance with the rest of these giants, and while at first he seemed contemptuous of all of them, by the end of the book he has become both more outgoing and more respectful of all of the others’ accomplishments.

This is a simply fascinating book that takes you through the history of the burgeoning cooking movement in the US through the eyes of some of its greatest teachers and chefs. It’s also a lot of fun to read! Get it and read it!

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