I met writer Luke Barr a few years ago in New York, at a panel discussion at NYU. Luke was discussing his ongoing research for a book partially about his great aunt--the legendary author M.F.K. Fisher-- and a very specific chapter of her life in the South of France. Listening to Luke’s anecdotes, I knew the finished book would be a terrific read. It finally came out (in late October, in hardcover) and has gotten wonderful reviews.
Luke and his publisher, Clarkson Potter, are graciously offering three copies as a giveaway to the readers of Provence Post.
In the course of her long career (she died in Glen Ellen, California in 1992 at age 83), M.F. K. Fisher wrote 27 books, starting with Serve it Forth in 1937. Her style was a unique combination of food literature, travel and memoir, and W. H. Auden once remarked: "I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.”
The American-born Fisher was a frequent traveler to France, returning again and again, for months and even years at a time. She lived in Dijon in the late 1920s and early ’30s, then returned to France--this time to Aix en Provence-- in 1954. Between 1955 and 1971, she bounced back and forth between France and St. Helena, California (and lived for a time in Lugano as well). Contemplating her future in a letter to a friend, Fisher once wrote: “I know, at this far date in my life, that I was meant to live and if possible to die on a dry, olive-covered hillside in Provence.”
In the fall of 1970, M.F. (as everyone called her) and her sister Norah (Luke’s grandmother) rented an apartment not far from Plascassier, near Grasse, where Julia Child and her husband, Paul, had built a vacation home five years earlier. Julia had come to Provence to escape her American fame… to cook for friends…to shop the markets…to relax. The Child’s house sat on the estate of Simone “Simca” Beck, Julia’s great friend and co-author of the two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Childs named their vacation home La Pitchoune.
“For a few weeks in 1970, the kitchen in the Childs’ house in Provence was the epicenter of the American food world,” Barr explains, in an April, 2013 Travel + Leisure article entitled Return to Provence. “James Beard and M.F. came to dinner, or stopped by on their way back from a day at the Fondation Maeght museum; Richard Olney, the reclusive American author of the just-released French Menu Cookbook, who lived a few hours away outside Toulon, came to pay his respects. Judith Jones, the editor at Knopf who’d discovered Child and Beck, visited with her husband, Evan, staying at a nearby inn.
“The trip that fall of 1970 was a fateful one, not only for my great-aunt, but for the entire American food establishment,” Barr continues. “They were all there in Provence together that fall and winter, more or less coincidentally… the people behind the seminal cookbooks and food writing of the era. They ate and drank and cooked together (and talked and sniped and gossiped, too), and they were all, in one way or another, rethinking their attachments to France, where they had each fallen in love with food and cooking to begin with.”
To write Provence 1970, a project that took him three years on and off, Barr (who was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Switzerland and now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters), took two leaves of absence from his job as an editor at Travel + Leisure. He combed archival research, interviews and the letters and journals of his great-aunt to re-create this pivotal moment. He also used the journals and letters of Fisher, Child, Olney, Beard and Beck…and the pages of Paul and Julia Childs’s “Black Book” (an “astonishing” binder of details about their home in France).
Luke also made multiple trips to Provence. “A few were trips in summertime,” Luke tells me, “and one wonderful trip in November, when the weather was cool and beautiful, and there were no tourists or traffic. I had tracked down Raymond Gatti, who was the chauffeur everyone hired to drive them anywhere in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and who still lived in Plascassier. We spent days driving around together, visiting places that come up in my story, like the Fondation Maeght and the diet clinic where James Beard was enrolled in 1970, which had been torn down and was now the Grasse police headquarters. Raymond also showed all his old photos....’’
Luke also rented Julia Child’s home La Pitchoune and you can read about that experience here.
And while the book itself has no photos, Luke has some wonderful images on his website here.
Among the flurry of positive reviews Library Journal calls Provence 1970 “…delightfully engaging, highly narrative, and intimate,’’ saying Barr does an excellent job of tying together the various threads of their collective stories through a blend of travelog, cultural history, and biography. “His account is quick and episodic in its pacing and feels vivid, authentic, and authoritative…” the review continues. “This small gem of a book is a fascinating delight.’’
And here’s what chef Alice Waters--owner of the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley--has to say: “Luke Barr has inherited the clear and inimitable voice of his great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher, and deftly portrays a crucial turning point in the history of food in America with humor, intimacy and deep perception. This book is beautifully written and totally fascinating to me, because these were my mentors—they inspired a generation of cooks in this country.”
My old friend Clark Wolf, a culinary historian and food consultant who splits his time between New York and Sonoma, knew all the characters in Provence 1970. So I rang him up to find out what he thought about the book. “I love it but I may be prejudiced,” Clark told me. “For a lot of us it’s the pre-quel to our lives. Like M.F.K., there is a real sound and feel to this writing that stays with you long after the story ends. With food and wine we call it a long, fine finish. With writing, we call it brilliant.”
To enter to win a copy of Provence 1970, simply leave a comment under “comments” below. Be sure to leave an email address so we can reach you; signing in with your Google account is not enough. Tell us why you simply must have this book...or what the food and cooking of Provence means to you…or tell us about a fabulous French meal you’ll always remember…or which of M.F.K. Fisher’s books have been most-memorable for you. The more personal and evocative your comment, the better!
If you’d like to buy the book (288-pages, hardcover), you can find it on Amazon here or in the Kindle edition here.
Bonne Chance and Bon Appetit!
*Note: If you live in the New York area and are interested in food and food history, get yourself on the mailing list for Clark Wolf’s terrific discussion series at NYU. Called “Critical Topics in Food,” it’s held at the NYU Bobst Library on Union Square. Events (three or four each year) are open to the public and video archived. To get on the mailing list: email@example.com.
Photos: There are no photos in the book but Luke has these beauties and a few more on his website (lukebarr.net). 1. Julia Child on the terrace at La Pitchoune, her vacation house in Provence, in the early 1970s. 2. In the kitchen at La Pitchoune, Paul Child painted outlines of Julia’s tools and equipment on the pegboard walls. [Photo by Benoit Peverelli]. 3. Bert Greene, James Beard and Julia Child cooking together at M.F.K. Fisher’s Last House, in Sonoma County, in the late 1970s. Child, Beard, and Fisher remained lifelong friends, seminal figures in modern American cooking.