Foodie

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American TasteProvence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a run last week, I saw a hummingbird at rest on the bough of a blackberry bush. Such a rare treat to see this tiny thumb of shimmering green and red in repose instead of as a darting blur at the hanging basket of flowers on our front patio. I paused to watch him on the gently swaying bough. In three heartbeats, he was gone.

Provence, 1970 is about recognizing the hummingbird at rest. It is about capturing a moment in time and holding it in freeze frame, before it darts away to catch up with the world. The moment and place and (most of) the players are evident in the book's title. Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher's grandnephew and an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, offers a bird's eye view into a movement on the threshold of change.

The movement is, of course, America's relationship to food. The change afoot in Provence, 1970 is the shift away from European—predominantly French—sensibilities, toward an embrace of the organic, local movements combined with an increasingly global palate.

Food is perhaps the most vibrant reflection of culture and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

Most tender and intimate is Barr's treatment of M.F.K. Fisher. She is the central character, a women in her sixties on the cusp of a life shift. Her children are grown, her career is comfortable, she is content to be without a husband. But she does need a home. When her house in Napa sells, a friend offers to build her a cottage on his property in Sonoma. She'd long planned to live out her older years in Provence, but now that this time is upon her, she wonders if modern France holds the same magic as the one of her memory. Her months in Provence, while she awaits the construction of the Sonoma house, become a meditation on the acceptance of letting go of the past and embracing a fresh start.

The author's portrayals of M.F., the Childs, James Beard, Richard Olney and numerous secondary players are rich, savory, bitter and sweet. He shows the internal conflicts these talented and passionate chefs and writers wrestle as their relationships to food and France shift and indulges the reader with good old-fashioned gossip as he details their conflicts with each other. Julia's increasingly fraught relationship with her co-author Simone Beck is not news, but Barr shows how it is viewed through the eyes of her contemporaries. He shows what it means to be a snob (Richard Olney), a bon vivant (James Beard), and a sensualist (M.F.K. Fisher) and how a small group of Americans excel at being more French than the French themselves.

And the food. Some of Luke Barr's most delicious, vivid and even hilarious writing is in the descriptions of meals prepared and consumed throughout Provence during these winter months. It is at once a celebration of and a primer on Provençal cuisine, with unparalleled scenery, tart conversation and raw observation to set the mood.

Provence, 1970 shows the beauty of capturing time just at the moment it hovers between the past and the present. Of course, we never realize the importance of such moments until they are long gone. Luke Barr does the nearly impossible: he conjures up the hummingbird and holds it in his hand just long enough for us to recognize the wonder of stillness before change.

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Provence, 2009

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant ChefBlood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three and a half stars. I can't quite get to a fourth.

My food epiphany occurred in France (of course), with food prepared by—wait for it—an Italian (of course). It was a three a.m., post-nightclub gathering of bleary-eyed, eardrum-collapsed international students, crammed into Bruno’s and Filippo’s kitchen in the Alpine city of Chambéry, where I had chosen to study because of its proximity to Italy (of course).

I was already half in love with Bruno from Ancona, but when he handed me a bowl of pasta glistening with sea salt and oil and tossed with tuna, capers, tomatoes, and Parmigiano Reggiano, its hangover-killing goodness transported me to a new sort of bliss. It took all of 20 minutes to prepare—most of that was waiting for the water to boil. Simple. And I’d never tasted anything as delicious.

A second light flashed fifteen years later, during culinary school in New Zealand. Pulling several kitchen shifts as part of my course, I realized the chef’s life was not for me. I hated the heat, the pressure, the clothing. My place was front of house, with the diners. As an introvert who loves a crowd, I adored the two-hour relationship with my tables, the way we could swap life stories over lamb shank and wine and, usually, never see one another again. It was the sharing of delicious food and the way the diners turned themselves over to me—trusting, expectant, curious, and delighted—that I treasured.

So, it was very easy to connect with Gabrielle Hamilton at the most visceral level. The psychology of beautiful food—the way it feeds our souls at least as much as our bodies, I get. It was even a vocation for a spell, from that glorious era in New Zealand where I waited tables and taught Hospitality, to the several years I spent working in Seattle as a wine and beer buyer and steward.

As someone who can’t tell a joke at a dinner table to save her life, but who feels the wonder of words in her soul and astonishment that she can weave them together in powerful ways, I connected with Gabrielle Hamilton as a writer. She made me feel better that my treasured acceptance to an MFA program this fall will go no further than a dream pinned to my bulletin board. Hamilton accepted that her soul needed the pan rather than the pen. Like me, she’s a doer, not a scholar.

This connection to her craft, born of nature and desperation, is the most powerful theme in Blood, Bones, and Butter. Hamilton's family celebrated food and loved to party. From her French mother she learned to cook and to revere the process; from her father she learned the crazy sort of joy that comes from opening your home and feeding the masses with fishes and loaves.

The desperation came when that family split apart, scattering like dandelion spores to the wind. The author entered the back door of the restaurant world, tethering herself to dishwashers and prep sinks as a way to create stability while her adolescence was crumbling beneath her.

And thus a memoir was born—Hamilton uses the broad outline of her résumé to structure her relationship with the world—her family, her marriage, her emotional development. This is less a memoir about the power of food than it is about the power of work, about one woman’s dogged determination to succeed on her own steam. Her industry could have been writing, or the stock market or real estate or teaching. The fact that her profession is cheffing is lucky for those of us who love the things she writes about so evocatively—food, travel, and the grit and grime of the restaurant world.

But I never quite trust her. Memoir is an eel—it’s either going to slip through your hands or shock you or, as is the case with Blood, Bones, and Butter, both. The danger for the contemporary memoirist comes in offering up course after course of one’s life, proffering it as a collection of tasty facts, then dropping the plates when real life catches up and contradicts you.

Around the time of the book’s publication, Hamilton appeared on “The Interview Show” and dismissed foodies as "a population that has kind of misplaced priorities." Granted, “foodies” is a tired moniker, but it’s an odd thing for a chef to give the finger to her most ardent fans. In the same interview, Hamilton declares "I'm barely interested in food....I love food but I don't like to talk about it very long."

Kinda weird. This tone of contrariness and defensiveness echoes in her writing, most notably during her years in Ann Arbor as she pursues her MFA at the University of Michigan and when she takes us down the short but winding road of her personal relationships. I ran often into the brick wall of Hamilton’s ego, erected and fortified against deep insecurities.

I was also perplexed by her marriage. Not the doing of it— she wouldn’t be the first to extend a generous hand to someone at odds with the INS. But she seemed baffled to find that love wasn’t waiting for her on the other side of the aisle. And yet, she stepped out on her long-term girlfriend to have a brief affair with her husband-to-be. And she cuckolded her own sister while writing this memoir. Hamilton’s disappointment felt very disingenuous, given her proclivity for infidelity.

I was also troubled by her mother-as-martyr routine. She chose to have two children, twenty months apart, with a man she was neither living with nor, if she is to be believed, hardly speaking to, all while in the early years of running a restaurant. These were choices. She had options, could have sought help, could have organized her life differently. She did not and I respect that. But her natural prickliness and independence read to me like a whole lotta “I’m such a badass, cooking brunch at thirty-nine weeks” self-back patting. It seems to run counter to her belief that we shouldn’t talk about “great female chefs,” we should talk about “great chefs,” period. A discussion, incidentally, that makes of one of the best chapters in the book.

Hamilton isn’t clear why she remained in a loveless marriage, nor why she drifted so far from her family, so the reader has a shadowy grasp on Gabrielle Hamilton, the woman. But in all fairness, this is the memoir of a chef. Touching on her two years abroad, on her summers in Italy with her now ex-husband’s family, her epiphany while working with the inscrutable Misty in Michigan, and her hardcore catering experiences, Gabrielle Hamilton—the chef and the writer—is a remarkable force. I’d welcome the chance to eat at her restaurant, Prune, and the opportunity to read more of her sparkling, no-holds-barred, angry, irreverent, and sexy writing. But I’d rather read it as fiction, because I think I might choke on her facts.

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