At this past spring's BookExpo, Clarkson Potter gave me a preview of their exceptionally beautiful and inventive cookbooks for fall. Luke Barr's Provence, 1970 stood out: they rarely publish food lit or bios, so it was already special, but they clearly adored this book, and when they explained its story and origins, the hairs on my arms stood on end. I felt like I was being handed a long-lost diary that promised access to what had to be one of the most fascinating, consequential moments in American culinary history (which, yes, happened in France).
Over the long last weeks of 1970, the era's true tastemakers--Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Simone Beck, and Judith Jones, among others--found themselves gathered in Southern France, where they cooked, feasted, and talked deep into the night, arguing about technique and taste until loyalties were redrawn and opinions reinvented. Decades later, Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher's grand-nephew, discovered journals and letters recording conversations and details of their dynamics, and he set about recreating this time of improbably wonderful convergence. He succeeds with elegance and gusto.
At our request, Barr has selected photos--from the Shlesinger Library at the Harvard's Radcliffe Institute--to give you a preview of the marvelous world of this book. You won't actually find these photos in the book, but when they arrived, I thought "Yes--this is exactly how I imagined these people, in that place," a testament to the evocative quality of Barr's prose. I also realized that I felt genuine gratitude for these people, the visionaries who believed so deeply that Americans could eat just as well as, or better than, the French that they spawned a movement of simply delicious food and cooking. When prepackaged food fails to satisfy our soul (or even our bodies), they keep calling us to the table, imploring us to cook and enjoy great meals with friends. And amid our own feasting, talking, arguing, and laughter, we can almost feel the ProvenÃ§al sun warming our backs.
Provence, 1970 will be available October 22, 2013.
M.F.K. Fisher at Last House, in Sonoma County, California. The house was built during her trip to Provence in the fall and winter of 1970. "I'm about to make a real break in my life," she wrote in a letter to a friend just before she left, as she contemplated the future.
Richard Olney and Simone "Simca" Beck, in the garden at Olney's Provencal estate in the early 1970s. He had pioneered a new, bohemian style of cooking, and had little respect for Julia Child and the rest of the American food establishment.
Julia Child on the terrace at La Pitchoune, her vacation house in Provence, in the early 1970s. At home in Cambridge, MA, she and her husband Paul were "invaded by telephone, telegraph, and letter, by peeping people, news editors, food writers, television tipsters, photographers, High School Year Book interviewers, cooking utensil salesmen, almond growers, fish experts, oven salesmen, restaurateurs, orchardists." At La Pitchoune, on the other hand, they could forget their intense American life and be quiet and anonymous.
James Beard at La Pitchoune, early 1970s. Beard was the godfather of the American food world, and a frequent visitor at the Childs's vacation house. In 1970, he was enrolled at a nearby diet clinic, hoping to lose weight, and working on his opus, American Cookery.
Julia Child and Simone Beck in Provence in 1970. Volume two of their hugely influential book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, had just come out, but their relationship was strained. This would be their final book together.
Bert Greene, James Beard, and Julia Child cooking together at M.F.K. Fisher's Last House, in Sonoma County, in the late 1970s. Child, Beard, and Fisher remained lifelong friends, seminal figures in modern American cooking.