In Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970 a Key Moment for New American Cooking


Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York’s best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we’ll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.

Provence, 1970
By Luke Barr, 320 pages, Clarkson Potter

Sometimes, the stars align to bring an extraordinary group of people to a specific place at a specific moment. In Paris in the 1920s, the Lost Generation. New York in the 1940s, the Abstract Expressionists and the birth of Be-bop. Then the Beats in the 1950s, and so on. In the winter of 1970, happenstance found Julia Child, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Simone Beck, and several other leading gastronomes in the south of France at a moment when American ideas about fine food and cooking were changing, reacting to and absorbing the free-flowing, liberal ideas that seized the nation during the 1960s.

Food was becoming less formal, and notably, less French, and this was shaking the foundations of American cookery, which had long held French cuisine as the benchmark of eating well. Few felt this change more poignantly or internally than Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, an early and prominent food writer and author who had, prior to this moment, looked at French food with great adulation.

Luke Barr, an editor at Travel & Leisure, is Fisher’s great nephew. His new book Provence, 1970 (October, 2013) tells the story of this moment in Provence, of dinner parties at the Childs’ and Becks’, of friendship and drama and rivalry and the splintering and coalescing of the America’s leading food thinkers in a place that at once fed them, and which they were fast moving away from.

What is one winter seasonal ingredient you’ve been cooking with lately?
I’ve been doing a lot of roasted chickens with root vegetables, with carrots, turnips, whatever else I can find…And I have this clay pot, which my mom always called a romertopf in German. It’s this clay pot, with a top on it, and I always had it around and never really used it. But I sort of got into it this year, and it’s so amazing. You can just throw a chicken in there, and it helps if it’s a good chicken, and then add whatever: Cut up an apple, or a bunch of root vegetables, and just stick it in the oven with a little bit of wine and whatever else you feel like throwing in there, and it’s just this easy, delicious winter dish.

What is one piece of advice on cooking that you could give, based on the ideas in this book?
I think my advice would be to not take [cooking] too seriously. People love Julia Child because she’s this remarkable character who is totally authoritative, but she’s also kind of a ham — she is almost a comic figure in a way, and she’s so fun to watch for that reason. And her basic message was “You can do this; anyone can do this. And if it doesn’t work out, no problem.” And it wouldn’t always work out for her; she’d be cooking a souffle and it would collapse or whatever. She just did it all on television, and she made it accessible in that way, whereas the strain of cooking, and what was changing at that moment [in 1970], was this very regimented idea of food as something that was French and something that involved lots of very deliberate sauce-making and going to school to learn how to be a chef…That was all changing. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, and she wasn’t a trained chef. That also resonates today, because we take it pretty seriously these days…For people like Julia Child and [her editor] Judith [Jones] and all of these people, it was really about cooking in your home. For the people that you loved. And that doesn’t have to be fancy or serious.

What would MFK Fisher think of where food is headed right now?
I think she would have been absolutely delighted. It is really remarkable how many more better quality ingredients you can get today. There are farmer’s markets all over the place, and you can get decent bread. All of these things we take for granted were not the case in 1970. I don’t think she would be watching celebrity TV cooking shows, but I think she would be celebrating the sheer quality of the food that we can get now. There’s a letter that I quote in the book, where MF is writing a letter to Julia, and she’s like “I found the best bread outside of Europe in a little bakery in Sonoma County, just down the road from me,” and that just shows you it was really rare to find someone who was making really good bread. Of course, that was the moment. James Beard’s next book in the early 1970s was Beard on Bread, and it was a huge success because that was just the moment, of that do-it-yourself ethos, where people were growing their own vegetables in the garden, making their own breads, etc.

What makes a great dinner party?
It’s not about the food, or anything else really, but the people who are there. I’m totally different from my great aunt; I remember MF, when we would go to her house, which was all the time, usually we’d be coming up for lunch. And she would always cook, but she would already be done cooking. But when I have a dinner party, I’m always still cooking, and I get other people involved in that. So I think it’s about the pleasure of cooking with others, and not so much about the end product.

Bouillabaisse a la Marseillaise (From The French Chef Cookbook, by Julia Child, Knopf, 1968)
(Mediterranean Fish Chowder)
Serves 6 to 8 people

For the Soup Base:

1 cup sliced yellow onions
¾ to 1 cup sliced leeks, white part only; or ½ cup more onions
½ cup of olive oil
A heavy 8-quart kettle or casserole
2 to 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes, or 1¼ cups drained canned tomatoes, or ¼ cup tomato paste
4 cloves mashed garlic

Cook the onions and leeks slowly in the olive oil for 5 minutes without browning.

Stir in the tomatoes and garlic, and cook 5 minutes more.

2½ quarts water
6 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
½ tsp thyme or basil
1/8 tsp fennel
2 big pinches of saffron
A 2-inch piece or ½ tsp dried orange peel
1/8 tsp pepper
1 Tb salt (none if using clam juice)
3 to 4 lbs. fish heads, bones, and trimmings including shellfish remains; or, 1 quart clam juice and 1½ quarts of water, and no salt

Add the water, herbs, seasoning, and fish or clam juice to the kettle. Bring to boil, skim, and cook, uncovered, at the slow boil for 30 to 40 minutes. Strain, correct seasoning. Set aside, uncovered, until cool if you are not finishing the bouillabaisse immediately, then refrigerate.

Cooking the Bouillabaisse

The soup base: 6 to 8 pounds assorted lean fish, and shellfish if you wish, selected and according to directions at beginning of recipe

Bring the soup base to a rapid boil in the kettle about 20 minutes before serving. Add lobsters, crabs, and firm-fleshed fish. Bring quickly back to the boil and boil rapidly, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Then add the tender-fleshed fish, and the clams, mussels, and scallops. Bring back to the boil again for 5 minutes. Do not overcook.

A hot platter
A soup tureen or soup casserole
Rounds of toasted French bread
1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

Immediately lift out the fish and arrange on the platter. Carefully taste soup for seasoning, place 6 to 8 slices of bread in the tureen, and pour in the soup. Spoon a ladleful of soup over the fish, and sprinkle parsley over both fish and soup. Serve immediately.

At the table, each guest is served or helps himself to both fish and soup, placing them in a large soup plate. Eat the bouillabaisse with a large soup spoon and fork, helped along with additional pieces of French bread. If you wish to serve wine, you have a choice of rosé, a strong dry white wine such as Côtes du Rhône or Riesling, or a light, young red such as Beaujolais or domestic Mountain Red.

Recipe via Smithsonian.

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