Thursday, February 23, 2017

Two enjoyable books of culinary changes and delights

I enjoyed reading both Provence 1970 and My Life in France by Julia Child.  Child's book is published in 2006, two years after her death.  It's a lovely retelling of her life with her husband Paul as they lived in France (and then Germany, Norway and then back in the States, in the Boston (Cambridge) area).  

It recounts many wonderful meals, and even more tells the story of how Child went from being a self-confessed horrible cook to becoming a great and even famous one.  I really appreciate Child's candor, her honesty about who she was when she was young, what she had to learn and how she learned French cooking and baking.  Her and her husband Paul's natural love of other peoples (they met in Ceylon, courted in China and married in the States) and an appreciation for other cultures and their food is deeply beautiful and something to treasure and strive to emulate.  To love another one must have an openness to the place and persons; to see what one can learn from being there.  Child clearly loved France in a very deep manner, the people, the markets, the food... yet she is able to tell you what she loved in Germany and then Norway.  It's quite remarkable to have such a good outlook and attitude towards other places and people.  

I also appreciated her loss and frustration with those, sadly including her father, who were incurious and unwilling to engage in ideas past what they believed to be true and were comfortable with.  While on many levels my outlook on life is different than Child's, I can keenly appreciate her wish for people to be well-read and open to listening to others.  I  believe it is possible to engage in the work of dialogue, exchanging ideas and having friendships with people who have different outlooks than oneself.  

Of course, if the expectation to be open and listen to the other really was an expectation of one to change their ideas to match the one they are exchanging ideas with, then I would say this is not only an unfair expectation but sets up an underlying unwillingness to listen and understand another's view while not needing to change one's own.  That one can do this balance is something sadly lost in our culture today in many areas.  

Thankfully Child seems to be a very warm person and one that could hold a conversation with many. 

The book Provence 1970 is a lovely read, though I would say that Child's is better by virtue of being an autobiography that tells the story of Child's life, not a story about an idea of the change in "American Taste" that focuses more on the idea than the full life stories of the authors Barr discusses.  

Provence 1970 has a lot to recommend itself: very readable, weaving in MFK Fisher, Julia Child, Simone Beck, James Beard and Richard Olney, with smaller mentions of Elizabeth David in London.  In other words, many of the culinary greats at the time.  Barr, the great-nephew of MFK Fisher had the fortune of using his Great Aunt MFK Fisher's personal papers to better understand how both Fisher and Child were changing, expanding their scope of culinary expertise and writing to be beyond France and the less tenuous fixed rules of French cuisine.
While I have books by MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David and Julia Child, I had not read deeply on the culinary history of that time period.  Barr's book is a delight on this front, as he is very adept at storytelling.  I have a better sense of the changes that were happening during this time; I find that social history is a tale told in many ways and culinary history is one. Fascinating! 

Barr's writings on how these writers were introducing and influencing cooking and restaurants is excellently written.  I saw clearly how cooking became more of an art form, how much of what we take for granted now (good bread and how to bake it, seasonal cooking, farm-to-table and so much more) began because of Child, Fisher, Beard, Olney,

There are, I find, two weakness in Barr's book, however much I can recommend it.  First, I found his emphasis on the sensuous in Fisher's personal life and writing, distracting and a bit disappointing.  It is not that Fisher was not a great artist in words, no.  My disappointment is in her being yet another artist with whom there were many lovers. While may would not think anything of this, I still find it shocking how there is so little register of what this lifestyle means in terms of individual's lives and societal change and decline. However, Fisher clearly has the second (or perhaps third part, her last) part of her life in seclusion and solitary, this part of her life appears to have changed, while her love and writing of food continues.   

I appreciated very much Barr's writing of his Great-Aunt's struggle with seclusion and that to turn too much inwardly is disastrous, even for an introvert.  It's a real struggle that Fisher seems to realize and act upon to counteract (by being in social settings, even when alone).  If found this to be very wise and perhaps a more mature Fisher is seen here.  I love how this happens - when you see an author suddenly grow; I remember reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's dairy and seeing quite vividly an inward maturity suddenly blossom.  

The second weakness is that his premise, of how both Fisher and Child, by and in 1970, are finding themselves in a different space, wanting to be more inclusive, inventive and open to cooking methods and cuisine of countries other than France.  I feel that he is trying to paint a picture of some great 'liberation' that is found for them, being free from France's culinary rules and able to appreciate American cooking, in all of it's diversity. That suddenly they are free to explore both curries and sea-food chowders.  I do not deny the truth of this premise, in that surely both Child and Fisher did move on to explore more than French cooking, with these precise French rules. However, I find that Barr not only repeats this premise unduly (some editing could of helped there) but in pushing his premise, he not only has to do some quick 'turn-arounds' in the story but is not telling the full story.  Nor did he acknowledge, I felt, that Child still felt deeply (spiritually) attune with France; she did move on to include more than French cooking but her love of France never dissipates.   In short, his premise is, in part, something of an ill-fitting box to tell the story of Child's life, in particular.  Child, as she records herself, had to move on from professionally collaborating with Simone Beck whose deep cultural roots kept her from understanding how to translate French cooking into an American landscape.  However, I got the impression from Barr that Child broke off completely with Simone until Barr himself mentions how Child's France house is neighbouring Simone's and on Simone's family property. It is clear from Child's book that she remained very loyal to Simone and cared about her as a dear friend, even when it was clear that they could no longer professionally collaborate.  

I experienced an similar surprise when you realize that the new cook, described in Barr's book, Richard Olney, is not someone who fails miserably at publishing cookbooks or never becomes an established recognizable cook, bringing about great influence in seasonal cooking.  To Barr's credit, he shows very well the changes in Olney and shows Olney's personal journal and maturing. 

The newly republished The Spice Cookbookfirst published in 1964, which discusses many dishes from around the world, tells me that the story I am hearing from Barr is incomplete.  It is true that Child and Fisher had an enormousness influence on American cooking, but this book demonstrates that the interest in other ethnic cuisine just a few years after Volume One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is published.  Thus, while the personal individual journeys of both Fisher and Child changed after 1970, the change they helped usher in, with a greater fullness, began well before.  (Though one cannot compare the vast influence of Child's books and legacy with the more unknown 1964 Spice Cookbook!). 

All this to say, Barr's book was still a delight to read and brought me quickly to read Child's autobiography and to dust off my cookbooks to reexamine them!  Barr's telling of culinary history is engaging, informing and gets to the roots and influences of so much of today's enjoyable culinary landscape - ones that we would be desolate without.


Tracy said...

Wonderful, thoughtful book reviews, Elizabeth--very much enjoyed this! I have both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking on my cookbook shelf. They are great reference books. I rarely actually cook from the recipes though, as so many of them require a great deal of time, and, sometimes, ingredients I'm not able to get locally. I make Julia Child's basci recipe for quiche--that is my go to quiche recipe. :) gOD Bless you & yours as we begin the Lenten journey soon! ((HUGS))

Gloriade said...

Wow, this was quite a post. I enjoy looking through cookbooks although I have learned to check them out from the library now as I rarely use more than a couple of recipes out of any one book. All these books sound like they would be lovely books to enjoy by the fire on a rainy day. Blessings to you Elizabeth.

2016lillies said...

It's deeply Christian Orthodox mentality to accept others and their opininions without trying to change them and without feeling the need to change your beleifs to fit in.

elizabeth said...

Tracy, thanks so much!
Gloriade, thanks!!! Yes, exactly, this is what these type of books are!!!
2016l ~ hi! I did not know your blog before - you are welcome here - I just read your whole blog and it is a delight - thank you for your writings. I agree with you in what you say. What I was trying to say in this book review is that I am still shocked and saddened (if that is the part you are writing about, my lament about Luke Barr's writing of his great aunt's life decisions) how people do not register the implications of their life and the overall societal destruction of the past 70+ years because of choices involving sexuality, divorce and other things. It's still astounding that they just don't know; it's not that I can say I am better or condemn them but that it is sad, so many artists, so many people, living lives that are destroying society and their personal worlds without understanding what they are doing or what they are missing....