Interview by Everett Potter
During the last weeks of 1970, the pioneers of modern gastronomy — Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Simone Beck, Richard Olney, Judith Jones – came together as much by happenstance as design in the South of France. In Provence 1970, writer Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher’s grand-nephew, documents that remarkable autumn, aided by his discovery of Fisher’s journals and letters. It’s delicious time travel to a golden age in American culinary world, light years before Food TV made us witnesses to instant food celebrity. Barr lovingly details the often sensuous meals, maps out the friendships, rivalries and the egos at play. He also makes a strong case for this brief season in France as the turning point for American cuisine. I recently had a chance to speak with him.
Everett Potter: One of my favorite parts of Provence 1970 was your recollection of visiting MFK Fisher at Last House in Sonoma when you were a young boy. Was it truly as magical as it sounds?
Luke Barr: Yes! Of course, I was a kid during those visits to my great-aunt’s house, so my recollections are tinged with a certain amount of sentimentality. But the house was truly beautiful. The walls were thick and in the summer it was hot outside but cool inside. I can still remember the smell of the house, which I describe in the book.
EP: Discovering your aunt’s diary was clearly a godsend. Had you started the book before you found it or did it generate the idea for Provence 1970?
LB: No, I had already started writing the book when I found M.F.’s diary. It was tremendous moment of discovery. I was methodically searching through huge stacks of unlabeled boxes in my cousin Kennedy’s storage unit in the San Francisco bay area, looking for anything having to do with her trip to France in 1970, and there it was: a pale green, spiral bound notebook with the year 1970 written on the cover.
The diary was crucial, and so were the letters M.F. wrote during the trip. All of the people I was writing about were great letter writers, but since they were all in France at the same time there are only a handful of letters amongst the group during those few weeks. But M.F. was carrying on a long distance (and mostly chaste) love affair with Arnold Gingrich, who was the founding editor of Esquire magazine—and they wrote each other letters every day. For my purposes, the existence of daily letters was a godsend.
EP: The interplay of strong personalities, with big egos and idiosyncratic styles, is at the heart of the book. Yet compared to the celebrity chef culture that surrounds us now, where knife skills, brashness and heavily tattooed arms seem to be the hallmarks of greatness, these individuals were thinkers, serious chefs, and writers — and in your great aunt’s case an exceptionally gifted one. Where would people like MF or Olney be today, and would they ever get near center stage? It’s hard to imagine them on “Chopped.”
LB: I agree—it’s impossible to imagine M.F. on Chopped! I think what this question highlights is just how much bigger the food world is today than it was 40 years ago. One of the charming things about the “Food Establishment” (as Nora Ephron mockingly dubbed it in New York Magazine in 1968) at the time was how small it was, how everyone knew everyone else. Of course, that made it a hotbed of gossip and sniping, which was fun to write about.
When I interviewed Judith Jones, who was the editor at Knopf who worked with many of the figures I write about, and who was also there in Provence in 1970, she bemoaned our present-day culture of celebrity chefs and hot restaurants, and reminded me that what it was always about for Child and the others was the pleasure of home cooking.
EP: At a time when famous chefs run personal media empires and have acquired substantial wealth, it’s refreshing to read about the brilliant but curmudgeonly Richard Olney spending years digging out his own wine cellar by hand. That happened in the 1960’s but it may as well be a tale from the Middle Ages. What other aspects of Olney’s very personal abode did you find interesting, or quirky?
LB: Olney’s house in Sollies-Toucas is stunning. it’s set on an extremely steep hill, and you can hike up above the house on a series of walled terraces. There was a quarry there long ago, and a small, deep swimming pool has been cut out of the rock face. The house is surrounded by vegetable and herb gardens, and inside, the kitchen is as he left it, and his paintings hang on the walls.
I was so glad to have Olney as a central character in my story, because it is useful, and entertaining, to have a truth-telling curmudgeon in the mix. He could be quite cruel and judgmental, and plays the role of villain in parts of my book. On the other hand I see him also as the hero of the story too, pointing the way to a more bohemian and earthy style of cooking.
EP: While MFK Fisher is the heart of your book, Julia Child seems to have been the force at the center of this culinary whirlwind, around whom MF, James Beard, Richard Olney and everyone else revolved. Would you agree?
LB: Child was a TV chef—she’d basically invented the genre—and was by far the most famous person in the food world at the time.
EP: Oddly enough, for a book about creative culinary giants coming together, one of the best parts of Provence 1970 is when MF is alone, in Arles and Marseilles. It’s compelling and maybe refreshing to see that not every moment in France was stunning, that food could be lousy, and that France was not always as magical as we might think, especially in this golden era. Did she tend to self-edit these types of experiences out of her books?
LB: I agree about those scenes being wonderful, and sometimes a little sad, as she’s wandering around Arles alone in the cold. The material in those chapters is almost entirely from her 1970 journal. But in terms of her self-editing: I don’t think so—in fact, if you go back and read Gastronomical Me, for example, there are numerous amusing scenes of dinners gone wrong. She had perfected a kind of eloquent, suggestive food writing that could also accommodate wry, gimlet-eyed observation. It was that combination that made her great I think.
EP: The Cote d’Azur has changed considerably since 1970, and you mention some of the development sprawl and change, as rural villages have become lairs for second homeowners. Still, what was your favorite place in the south of France as you researched your book, a place you’d gladly return to tomorrow?
LB: This will not come as a surprise, but I love Provence. The book started as an article I wrote in Travel + Leisure about Aix-en-Provence, one of my favorite places anywhere. But most inspiring was staying at La Pitchoune, the vacation house that Julia and Paul Child built on the estate of Simone Beck in Plascassier. The kitchen there is preserved just as it was when they owned it, and a delight to cook in. I stayed there a few times, including once in November, when the weather was cool, the roads were empty, and there was a faint smell of burning leaves in the air. I spent days driving around the countryside with Raymond Gatti, who was the chauffeur who drove all the food people around back in the 60s and 70s. We went to Grasse and Vence and St.-Paul de Vence, all unbelievably beautiful. Most of the restaurants were closed but we found a little roadside place outside Vence where we ate steak tartare and frites.
EP: In writing Provence 1970, what was the single most delicious recipe you came across and made for yourself or your family?
LB: I love to make stews of all kinds, and I find Richard Olney’s recipe for Daube a la Provencal to be inspiring. He is such a brilliant writer—I really recommend his French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food books. “The daube, “ he writes, “like most rustic dishes that require a long, slow, even cooking process, is never as good as when prepared in seasoned earthenware, which absorbs heat more slowly and more evenly and holds it longer than any other kitchen utensil…. A daube is a good winter dish but has been placed here among the summer menus so that it may profit from fresh tomatoes.” I have been using my mom’s old covered earthenware pot for many dishes recently, including for roast chicken.
EP: One reaction I had while reading Provence 1970 was that I wanted to go back and read, or reread in some cases, M.F.K. Fisher’s works. She was a brilliant stylist and an acute observer. What is your favorite book of hers, and why?
LB: My first answer is that I most adore her letters, which are less stylized and more direct and funny than her books and essays. My grandmother, Norah Barr, edited a collection of her correspondence that is wonderful. But I also love her early book, The Gastronomical Me, for its unique combination of confessional, personal writing and super-stylish coming-of-age-in-food reminiscence. It’s close to the bone.