As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations”? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column, a seminal meal in France leads me down a winding path.
Barr, Luke. Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste. Clarkson Potter: Crown. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780307718341. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780770433314. COOKING
In a clear, flowing, and graceful style, Barr, the great-nephew of Mary Frances Kennedy (M.F.K.) Fisher (1908–92), tells the story of a remarkable culinary convergence. In the fall and winter of 1970, food writers James Beard (1908–85), Julia Child (1912–2004), and Fisher found themselves in roughly the same area of France. In ways that sometimes overlapped but just as often diverged, each of the chefs came to question long-held beliefs about the superiority of French cuisine and the possibilities for a new American food revolution. In Fisher’s case, much of her yearning for the new was triggered by her reactions to a France far different from the one she remembered and also to Richard Olney, a snobbish American expat and cookbook author who had a prickly and disdainful personality. In Child’s case, it was her exhaustion from finishing the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with coauthor Simone Beck, whom Child had come to find tiresome and whose philosophies she questioned deeply. The story told here of the meals, meetings, and clashes that prompted their new visions is delightfully engaging, highly narrative, and intimate. 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—owing to his seamless research and the access he had to Fisher’s journals that detail the period. This small gem of a book is a fascinating delight.
Reichl, Ruth. Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table. Random. 2010. 336p. ISBN 9780812981629. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780375507045. COOKING
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Barr’s work (above) is that he places readers into the center of the food world and its different personalities while at the same time weaving together a story-rich plotline that keeps his work on track. Reichl (editor in chief, Gourmet) does the same with her personal and insightful stories of becoming a food writer and restaurant critic. As with Barr’s, her work is quickly paced and episodic, decidedly intimate, and lushly descriptive of food (recipes are included). While Reichl began her memoirs with Tender at the Bone (and continued them in a third book, Garlic and Sapphires), this work focuses more on food celebrities—including brushes with luminaries such as M.F.K. Fisher, Alice Waters, and Wolfgang Puck—which makes it a particularly good suggestion for Barr’s fans. While Reichl is writing a memoir and not an autobiography, she is still charting the cultural history of her times, which nicely meshes with Barr. If your readers get hooked on food memoirs, also consider suggesting Anne Willan and Amy Friedman’s One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France (St. Martin’s, Sept.).
Gayford, Martin. The Yellow House: van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence. Houghton Harcourt. 2008. 352p. ISBN 9780618990580. pap. $14.95. FINE ARTS
Matching Barr’s ability to blend forms engagingly and authoritatively, here UK-based Gayford (coeditor, The Grove Book of Art Writing) combines biography, art history, and criticism to offer readers a brilliant account of the nine critical weeks artists Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin spent painting together in Arles, France, in 1888—a period that changed their styles and helped to shape the future of many artistic endeavors that followed. The two painters reacted to each other strongly, borrowing ideas, playing off of the strengths of the other, and submerging themselves in an intimate fervor of artistic production that resulted in the creation of major works. In the same way Barr deals with food, Gayford focuses on the art—describing, detailing, and explicating the paintings. His intimate, vivid, and well-researched account should please Barr fans looking for another riveting examination of a critical period of convergence.
Kamp, David. The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution. Broadway. 2007. 416p. ISBN 9780767915809. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780307575340. COOKING
For readers of Barr who would like more background on how the culinary world as we now know it came into being, suggest Vanity Fair writer Kamp’s dishy and detailed cultural history of the American food revolution. While more freewheeling and less intimate, Kamp’s work matches Barr’s on pacing and detail. Covering more than 60 years of food history, Kamp traces how we went from a nation that existed on boxed food and celebrated the quick and easy to a nation that revered (and would spend a great deal of money on) organic microgreens, heirloom vegetables, and artisan bread, bacon, and cheese. His tour follows culinary revolutionaries James Beard and Julia Child as well as Craig Claiborne before picking up the second wave of style and tastemakers such as Alice Waters, Dean & DeLuca, and Wolfgang Puck and then races toward our contemporary food culture of celebrity chefs, who are too busy being on TV to actually cook. For another bite at the changing tides of American cookery, suggest as well Joyce Goldstein’s Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness (Univ. of California, Sept.).
Fisher, M.F.K. The Art of Eating. Houghton Harcourt. 2004. 784p. ISBN 9780764542619. pap. $24.95. COOKING
For as much as Barr spends time with all the players gathered in Provence, his focus is decidedly on M.F.K. Fisher. Both before the snippy shared meals and after everyone left the south of France, Barr follows Fisher’s life, dipping briefly into her relationships and discussing in some depth her writing. For readers who have yet to encounter Fisher’s often autobiographical essays on food, culture, and travel, Barr’s introduction is an enchanting and seductive delight. Through descriptions and actual excerpts, he shines a steady light on her glorious prose. It is more than enough to make readers go in search of something by her to read. A prolific writer, Fisher created a large body of work, and this collection includes five of her best-known pieces and is a great place for readers to begin. It highlights her wit and observational skills; her love of food, place, and people; and her imitable style. Readers who want more about Fisher might wish to turn to Joan Reardon’s engaging biography, Poet of the Appetites.
Spitz, Bob. Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. Vintage. 2012. 576p. ISBN 9780307272225. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307961129. BIOG
While Fisher is the star of Barr’s book, Julia Child hovers around the edges more than anyone else. The tidbits about her relationship with Simone Beck as well as the way Richard Olney views her are each sufficient inducements to search for more of her life story. While there are a number of solid choices to fill this need, including Child’s own autobiography, My Life in France, and Laura Shapiro’s Julia Child, Spitz offers readers an engaging, highly narrative, and exhaustive version of Child’s rise to fame—including brief overlapping information about Beck and Olney. Most critically, however, Spitz retrieves Julia from her iconic pillar, showing how diligently she worked, how creative and forward thinking she was, and how devoted she was to the cause of cookery. His is a delightful treat of a biography, well set and characterized and deeply engaging.
The French Chef. color. 432 min. PBS. 2005. DVD UPC 783421382992. $39.95. COOKING
It is hard to read Barr’s book without visualizing Julia Child cooking on her TV show, The French Chef. Her groundbreaking series began in 1963 and ran through 1973, so she was in her full height of celebrity and power when she traveled to Provence in 1970—a fact that helps explain much of Simone Beck’s and Richard Olney’s reactions. Watching Julia on the television series also helps explain her great popularity—she is funny, warm, quirky, and infinitely reassuring. She conveys information clearly and with flair, making even the most intimidating techniques seem possible. Though some of it seems old-fashioned now, in particular the production of the early episodes and her comments on the availability of food (which only serve to underscore how much she changed the food landscape), many of the program’s features remain delightfully fresh and wonderful—especially Julia’s inflections, her nonchalant reaction to mistakes, and her tendency to sweep scraps onto the floor.
Beard, James. Beard on Bread. Knopf. 256p. 1995. ISBN 9780679755043. pap. $16.95. COOKING
Barr identifies three cookbooks that helped turn the focus of cooking in America in a new direction, one each by James Beard, Julia Child, and Richard Olney. Beard’s contribution is this lovely title—a gift to bakers, with a brilliant blend of accessible information and instruction combined with an aspirational, yet still possible, list of recipes. In these charming and smart pages, filled with hand-drawn illustrations, Beard guides readers through the ways of bread: of mixing, kneading, proofing, and baking and even of cutting and serving. He shares throughout the importance of connecting to what one eats and to finding the joy in making your own food. He begins with basic yeast breads and then moves through a huge range of additional types of breads, but the best part of the book is when Beard speaks directly to his audience and guides them clearly through the process of bread making with astoundingly detailed (and illustrated) instructions.
Child, Julia. The Way To Cook. Knopf. 1993. 528p. ISBN 9780679747659. pap. $39.95. COOKING
As Barr tells readers, the cookbook that most clearly expressed Child’s new vision post-1970s Provence was her book From Julia Child’s Kitchen, now sadly out of print indefinitely (but not hard to track down second-hand). It is a book that is far more carefree than her landmark two-volume undertaking with Beck and one that shares her heartfelt opinions about cooking and its proper approach. As a follow-up to the decisions made in 1970, it is classically influenced but not classical and not completely French—it is also personal and inviting. If you do not have a copy of From Julia Child’s Kitchen left in your collection, suggest instead this title, which Child intended as her second magnum opus. Built around the concept of master recipes and supported with dozens of variations, her cookbook for a new generation guides readers step by step through the foundational skills of cookery with a warm, inviting, and supportive sense of authority.
Olney, Richard. Simple French Food. Houghton Harcourt. 1992. 448p. ISBN 9780020100607. pap. $19.95. COOKING
Olney disdained Julia Child and deeply irritated M.F.K. Fisher, causing her to leave Provence that fateful year and spend her holiday alone in the cold climes of Arles and Avignon. However objectionable and opinionated he may have been, he produced a beautifully written, sensual, and exacting cookbook that helped change how Americans thought about how they cooked and what they ate. The cookbook, published only a few years after his meals with Fisher and Child, was a huge success, influencing such chefs as Alice Waters. A book that can be read without ever being cooked from, this title offers readers full explanations of the process of cooking and urges them to understand what is happening when they mix ingredients, follow a method, or cook in a particular way. Look for a new 40th-anniversary edition, due out in May 2014, with an introduction by Mark Bittman.