Several years ago, when I was living in Burgundy, I went looking for the ghost of MFK Fisher.
Fisher is one of America’s most renowned food writers. She fell in love with France and French cuisine when, as a newlywed, she joined her husband in Dijon from 1929 to 1932. Later, she wrote about that time in her memoir, ‘Long Ago in France’.
Searching for MFK Fisher
Map in hand, I scouted her – or at least the house where she and her student-husband had rented rooms. I knew the street, but couldn’t place the spot.
When I asked a woman passing if she had ever heard of MFK Fisher, to my surprise she answered not only “oui”, but that she now inhabited the same house that Fisher had. She invited me in.
A new French culinary adventure
A wonderful new book about Fisher has recently been published: ‘Provence, 1970’ . It was written by her great-nephew, Luke Barr; an editor at ‘Travel & Leisure’ magazine.
Barr’s grandmother, Norah, was Fisher’s younger sister and he captures an arguably important time in Fisher’s life. She was coming to a new understanding of French food, culture, and the culinary scene.
Her children grown and her second husband no longer alive, Fisher was moving away from what she thought was a sentimental connection with France. She became interested in something bigger, more current – contemporary France, in all its complexity. She was curious, too, about the pleasures of the cuisines of other countries, including America.
Fisher wasn’t alone on her trip; she went with Norah. Both of them anticipated meetings with iconic culinary figures: America’s ‘French Chef’ Julia Child (and her photographer husband, Paul), food writers James Beard and Richard Olney, Child’s colleague, Simone Beck, co-author of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’, and well-known cookbook editor Judith Jones.
In the cuisine with French culinary giants
Call it a perfect culinary storm – all of them at Julia and Paul’s home in Provence, exchanging opinions about food, politics and life over beautifully crafted meals. Barr evokes the spirit of the people and the place, quoting extensively from letters and Fisher’s diary – even citing the menus.
‘Provence, 1970’ reads almost like a thriller, except for the fact that no one is murdered during the meals. Barr acts as a brilliant detective; teasing out the stories of each food ‘great’.
What were these famous faces really like?
He describes their strengths and weaknesses, their rivalries with one another; even the backbiting and animosity. Olney perhaps comes off the worst. He seems vindictive, sniping, and downright nasty.
Child, however, glows. If you didn’t appreciate her before, you will now – for her sense of fun, but also fairness. Child, like Fisher, was turning over a new leaf. She was ready to distance herself professionally from Beck and pursue other projects, beyond her Cordon Bleu training and its canon.
As Christopher Kimball of the Wall Street Journal explains, “the interplay of these four fiercely independent personalities makes this book a guilty pleasure.”
What are your favorite books about Provence? Or French cuisine? Share your comments with us below- we’d love to hear from you!
“I’ve had a long and passionate interest in France and especially French food. An American now based in Madison, WI, I’ve lived and worked in Paris as a reporter for CBS News and in Burgundy as a teacher. I’m the author of Eat Smart in France and Eat Smart in Portugal, both culinary travel guides. See my web page for further information.”
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