Provence, 1970, Luke Barr’s irresistible new slice of food-culture history, couldn’t have appeared at a more promising moment. Cooking is something of a craze these days, and food is very much in fashion. Perfectly aligned with the times, Provence, 1970 features a cast of cooks, writers and critics with personalities as volatile and opinions as ironclad as those of the slightly unhinged chefs we see on TV today.
The book’s central character is acclaimed food writer M.F.K. Fisher, Barr’s great-aunt. Drawing on Fisher’s journals and letters, Barr has written a skillfully crafted narrative about the remarkable trip Fisher made to southern France at the age of 62 and the great convergence of culinary minds that occurred there.
In December of 1970, Fisher embarked on a holiday tour of Provence and its environs, where she had long before experienced the “first epiphany of taste” that inspired her writing career. As it happened, a few of her fellow foodies were passing the holiday there, too—a group that included the always-genial Julia Child; Simone Beck, Child’s demanding, French-to-the-max cookbook co-author; and beloved chef James Beard. Also on the scene: Richard Olney, a French-cuisine genius and relative newcomer to the food world, who was contemptuous of his colleagues—Child especially—and whose snarky, behind-the-back remarks show just how combative the culinary world, at its upper echelons, could be.
La Pitchoune, Child’s majestic vacation house, served as HQ for the gourmands. There, they cooked, dined, shared gossip and debated America’s evolving culinary culture. Barr’s fluid, elegant recreations of the intimate meals and earnest discussions deliver a sense of each character’s temperament. (Over dinner one night, Fisher, tired of high-toned food talk, raised the topic of American politics. Olney’s response was a yawn.) Barr seamlessly shifts points of view, and the result is a marvelously detailed mosaic of clashing ideas, personalities and attitudes regarding food. He finds a point of focus for the story in Fisher. An eminently likable character whose modesty and introspective nature set her apart from her colleagues, she is the calm, still center of the book.
Provence, 1970 is a narrative that bons vivants will tuck into with relish, but it wasn’t written for epicures alone. You needn’t be a foodie to enjoy Barr’s beautifully written book.