I’ve been really behind on my blogging this month, but I finally had some time to sit down and review a book that brings together a number of my interests, Provence, 1970. While I’m not particularly interested in the ’70s, I do love anything that involves M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, or France. So, a book that deals with all four is one that I am more than happy to spend my time reading.
Written by Luke Barr, the grandnephew of M.F.K., this book centers on a time when changes ran rampant around the food world. While France essentially owned the American food scene for the better part of the 1960s, by the time the 70s rolled around, people were ready for something new. This is the basic thesis of Barr’s book, though his analysis of these changes falls wayside to his behind-the-scenes look into the lives of these foodie frenemies. The goal may have been to illustrate the evolution of American food, but it’s mostly full of the gossip, backhanded compliments, and menus that these bigwigs dished out to one another. With this in mind, it’s still an enjoyable book, just not right for every food geek.
M.F.K., Julia, and Beard all follow a path that probably feels familiar to most of us; they go to France filled with nostalgia, only to discover that France is no longer what they need. Their interests have changed, they’re different people than they were in the early 60s, and they’re finally ready to spend some quality time with their American home. How French one seems is no longer the litmus test for class, and these three adjust their work accordingly. They may be ready to change, but I question how much of an influence they actually have on modern cookery. M.F.K. is hardly a well-known name outside of the food world, people flock to Mastering the Art of French Cooking over more modern works like Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, and Barr explains that Beard’s painstakingly-researched book flops when it is released. It seems as if 1970s America, as it evolved, may not have taken to these three changing as much as Barr believes.
Even though the facts Barr details are important, the words are what bring the book to life. There are gorgeous descriptions of Provence, food being thoughtfully made, and people. However, though the sentences have a great cadence to them, there are moments where things just don’t click. There will be a lyrical line about the efficient Olney passionately taking all day to fashion a fluid meal filled with leeks and red wine, and then the next sentence will jar every reader back to reality. Barr gets caught up in nostalgia, and it works, but when he comes back down to earth, his prose suffers. Overall, though, he does command words in an engaging way, and that’s more than I can say for most authors these days (*cough* 50 Shades of Grey *cough*).
What makes this book so interesting isn’t just the beautiful descriptions of food or scenery, but also the relationships between these food heavyweights. Everyone loves Julia Child, right? Wrong. Apparently, to some she’s an undeserving upstart. Beard loves her, but Simca doesn’t. In addition to this feud, M.F.K. is sick of France in general and Richard Olney totes around a superiority complex while boldly judging everyone else. He probably gets the short end of the stick as Barr is naturally predisposed to be on M.F.K.’s side, but it’s undeniable that his cattiness and desire to gossip are what keep portions of this book afloat. He’s the kind of guy you love to hate and the only thing that’s missing is a mustache for him to twirl as he walks all over these other Americans. By the end of the book, the biggest question is: Is Richard Olney the Mean Girl of the food world? Probably yes, if you ask Luke Barr.
This is a good choice for anyone who needs to have their hands on everything to do with these visionary chefs, but for the average reader, this book will leave you wanting. It’s does make a point about the changes happening in 1970, but more so than that, it’s meant to satisfy the Bravo-lover in all foodies. As a girl who excitedly tunes in to both Mind of a Chef and Real Housewives, it’s perfect for me. Clocking in around 300 pages, this idea could have easily been fleshed out more, but as it stands, gossipmongers should flock to this book, while others go pick up something with a bit more substance to it.