The 1950s were a dark time for the American cook, although she may not have realized it at the time. World War II introduced new food technologies such as freezing methods, preservation and dehydrating, all in the name of the war effort. After the war ended, food manufacturers needed to convince the American consumer to continue on with the new traditions from frozen TV dinners to the meat product called Spam. Cookbooks followed suit with such popular titles as “Cookbook for Frozen Foods” and The Can Opener Cookbook”. Convenience and elaborate presentation were all the rage, as well as some unusual pairings as this photo from my grandmother’s 1970 “Joy of Jell-O” cookbook depicts.
Somewhere along the line, American tastes and skills started to change and expand. Many give richly deserved credit to Julia Child for changing the culinary landscape but author Luke Barr says more people are deserving of the credit. He also theorizes the change occurred in Provence, France in 1970 when Julia Child, Child’s writing partner Simone Beck, American cookbook author James Beard, and food writers MFK Fisher (Barr’s great aunt) and Richard Olney vacationed in the South of France during the same time period. Through a series of correspondence and the food icons journals, Barr has written a dramatic retelling of when these instrumental people gathered together over their holidays and discussed the “future of food in America, the meaning of taste and the limits of snobbery”.
Child, Beck, Beard, Fisher and Olney all had a tremendous love of food but were incredibly different in their philosophies. Olney and Beck saw themselves as French traditionalists who were inclined to believe American cooks lacked the intuition for cooking authentic French fare. This view often put Beck at odds with Child during their creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes 1 and 2). Child was a stickler for detail, ever mindful of the American cook trying new methods and utilizing new ingredients at home. Beck and Olney felt a true cook would operate under instinct. Together they shared distaste for the proverbial American housewife who needed to have her hand held each step of the way. Beard loved American cooking in all its forms and greatly looked forward to America finding its own style. Fisher wrestled with her long love affair with France, its food and her growing impatience for the snobbery she experienced.
The conversations among these revered individuals illustrate how their thoughts and beliefs were challenged and changed. Barr has drawn heavily from his great aunt’s journals from that time period and written an incredible account of a moment in time that forever changed how Americans view, cook and enjoy food. As I came to the end of “Provence, 1970”, I was drawn to my own, somewhat meager, cookbook shelf and compared my 1990s version of “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” to my grandmother’s 1950s version. Based on this picture alone form each era’s “Appetizers and Snacks” chapter, I think we can all be grateful for the turning of the tide.
If you enjoy cooking or take great pleasure in a good meal with good friends, “Provence, 1970” is a great read.