PW Best Books 2013: Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nowadays, food writing seems to have reached high decibels—everyone clamoring to be heard, everyone filling his or her sentences with bold, exciting ways to describe a restaurant experience, a piece of meat, a once downtrodden vegetable.

The pace is furious, and the virtual din can resemble the kitchen of many a hot New York City restaurant on a Saturday night. The bigger the chef, the faster the tempo. There is little time to think, to take a step back.

So it was refreshing to come across Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970, about the time when M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard happened to be in Provence at the same time for a few weeks one year; and how, from that moment, they and a few others would change the course of American cuisine, gradually.

M.F.K. Fisher was Barr’s great aunt, which he discussed with us in an interview. And in his book he beautifully evokes those few days in Provence with an elegance and thoughtfulness that appropriately celebrates his great aunt.

Not every meal, not every bite of a piece of bread is transcendent; food as a meal offers both writers—Fisher and Barr—time and space, especially when dining alone. At one point M.F.K. travels alone to Arles, and Barr subtly captures a moment in the cold December chill:

“The maid at the Nord-Pinus delivered a breakfast tray every morning with a café au lait and two croissants, a small dish of butter, and a large bowl of apricot jam. The café au lait was over-milky and oversweet, an innocent sensuality that always made [M.F.K.] want to go back to bed and read awhile longer.”