In Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, Luke Barr tells the story of how his great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher, together with Julia Child and James Beard, reinvented American taste.
What is the significance of Provence in 1970?
Let’s start with France. All of my characters discovered cooking—and foods as simple as bread and butter—in France in the ’40s and ’50s for the first time. The ’50s were an awful time for cooking in America—a lot of processed and canned food for convenience sake—and they wanted to bring basic good food back. In 1970, France was still central to their culinary views, but they began to feel constricted by the classic haute cuisine of French cooking. At the same time, there was a new bohemianism bubbling up, and these soon-to-be towering figures of the food world begin to ask themselves, “What is great food? Does it have to be French?”
What do you remember most about your great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher?
I was a kid. My great aunt lived in Sonomoa County [Calif.]; I grew up in the Bay Area. We went up to Sonoma frequently to have lunch, and I remember these hot drives up to this very cool house—with thick walls and high ceilings. My great-aunt wrote about food and was a great cook, but I never saw her actually cooking It was either already prepared or in the oven [when we arrived]—there was never a flurry of activity. She was formidable, but very warm.
How old were you when you first read her books?
Most likely in college. Her style of her writing was New Yorker writing of the 1950s, and was almost precious. But her books are nothing like her letters—the bulk of her letters are collected at Harvard, where I studied.
Reading her books now, is there one that resonates with you more than the others?
Her seminal books are from the 1930s. I would say Gastronomical Me—her personal account of her life and writing about food. But it was her diaries that I referred to most often. There’s a chapter in there where she’s wandering alone in Arles. Why is she alone? I made extensive use of her diaries and hoped to bring her to life through them. It did cross my mind that she herself could have written my book.
How did you come across this story?
I was doing a story in 2009 in Aix-en-Provence for Travel & Leisure, about following in my great-aunt’s footsteps. Research, reading M.F.K. Fisher’s old books—that was the germ for my book. Once I began researching the book, I realized that all these people wrote wonderful letters to each other. Their time in Provence in 1970 was really just a few weeks. As I was trying to recreate that period, these letters proved to me the most valuable thing—I had what was almost a moment-by-moment record of Fisher’s time there.