The Dinner Party

When Julia Child, James Beard, and M.F.K. Fisher ate together and created the future of American food.

Luke Barr: Provence 1970
Illustration bt Greg Ruth

When I make my grandmother’s breakfast casserole, I’m instantly transported to her bright, warm kitchen on Christmas morning, where it is her annual custom to make the sausage and egg dish along with cool ambrosia salad for breakfast. But at the same time, I’m also back in my little college kitchenette, mixing up the casserole as a birthday surprise for a boy who, as it would soon become apparent, did not like me as much as I liked him. Years later, a bittersweet note discernible only to me is unavoidably melted in with the Cheddar cheese and Worcestershire sauce.

The past’s tendency to seep into the meals of our present is a phenomenon well known to Luke Barr, an editor at Travel + Leisure and author of the gorgeous new book, Provence, 1970. Barr’s work is a novelistic account of the real winter of 1970-1971 that found American food luminaries Julia and Paul Child, influential cookbook authors Richard Olney and James Beard, Knopf editor Judith Jones, and beloved food writer M.F.K. Fisher—Barr’s great-aunt—gathered together, somewhat by serendipity, in the fragrant hills of Provence. There, over a series of dinner parties (Barr naturally includes the menus), side trips, and sightseeing, the group discussed recipes, wine, their careers, and the state of food culture in France and the United States.

Barr is an excellent writer about the pleasures of cooking and food; there’s enough sizzle in his accounts of these dinners to allow an appreciation of Provence purely on the level of sensuality. It is not easy for me to admit Barr’s descriptions of cooking and eating have in some cases supplanted Julia Child’s own My Life in France in my fantasy repertoire. Late in the book, Simone Beck (Child’s cookbook partner and landlord) offers a New Year’s preparation of potée normande, a rich, multihour stew, which I will inevitably attempt over the holiday season:

When the potée normande was done, Beck made a sauce with some of the cooking broth and heavy cream. This was then served over the thick slices of beef, pork, sausage, and chicken, along with the carrots and leeks. Large bowls were passed around, steam rising from the fragrant meat and soup.

If that sounds good, know that Barr is even better with the pleasures present beyond the plate. His subtle appreciation for the many intrigues of a dinner party—how, for example, a host’s menu can serve as a shady philosophical argument as much as a tasty suite of courses—is delicious in a way that has nothing to do with the mousseline of sea urchins in aspic. Barr’s access to his great-aunt’s  detailed diaries and correspondence (in addition to the memoirs and papers of other characters and interviews with Judith Jones, the local driver, and Barr’s grandmother Norah) infuses Provence with a wonderful gossipy quality that’s as entertaining as it is humanizing, especially to mythic figures like Child. These people were clearly—and necessarily, given their taste-making professions—arrogant, judgmental, and snobbish (often, funnily, about “simplicity” in cooking), and yet none of them quite appreciated just how deeply their work would shake and shape American eating habits in the decades to come.

For looming around these meals, in the shadows just beyond the candlelit table, was the open question of “what next?” By 1970, the innate glamour and long-unassailable preeminence of French cuisine was fading due to a variety of societal factors, and each member of the crew—who had all made their names “mastering” it in one way or another—was hungry for something new. Barr’s book, then, is a portrait of a pivot, a sumptuous record of an encounter not unlike those particle interactions depicted in a Feynman diagram in which the participants approach each other, glow furiously for an instant, and then depart the scene utterly changed.

Luke Barr: Provence 1970

Photo by Benoit Peverelli courtesy Random House

Barr’s careful presentation of his characters’ trajectories reveal Provence as an important work of cultural history in the guise of a foodie treat. He asks in his prologue: “Who can know where history actually happens, where or when exactly an idea takes root, or blossoms, or wilts away?” This book is an argument that it is as likely to happen in kitchens and wine cellars as in more traditional halls of power. And why not? As Barr points out, 1970 was a “combustible moment.” “So much was shifting in the larger culture—the politics of identity and style, the parameters of taste, of what it meant to be a sophisticated person,” he writes. Tradition and regimented learning were being replaced with experimentation and improvisation, the backlash against mass-production was strengthening, and the growing influence of multiculturalism suggested that the French way might be just one worthy approach among many. With all that flotsam floating in the air, some of it is bound to drift into the food and change it, and thus, us.

Indeed, if Provence has one flaw, it’s Barr’s overzealous insistence on repetitive and unnecessary This moment would change American culture! signposts. In a story so carefully researched and lovingly controlled, we don’t need any extra directions to find our way from Child’s famous kitchen at La Pitchoune or Olney’s hideaway above Solliès-Toucas to the organic farmer’s markets, locavore-friendly CSAs, and light, modern “new American”(yet French-rooted) cooking that we enjoy today. A brief cameo by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in the final pages is more than enough to demonstrate the connection.

But then again, I’m someone who already believes that food amounts to more than what fits on a fork. Barr is likely more interested in convincing less-sympathetic readers that good, thoughtful cooking—its reputation marred today by the more obnoxious strains of foodieism—is more than fussiness or extravagance; as the legacy of the tasty days chronicled in Provence, 1970 proves, small bites can have big consequences.

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr. Clarkson Potter.

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