M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste

Luke Barr

Until I read this book I had managed to resist the cultural obsession with the south of France. Barr’s description of the small town daily life has won me over: I have now officially drunk the Kool-Aid and long to spend a summer living in a maison and buying fresh food daily at a farmer’s market. You can buy fresh vegetables at Whole Fields or your local grocery store every day, but the idea of wandering around an outdoor market searching for just the right fish, meat or vegetables to prepare for dinner while having the time to do so is a tempting fantasy.

The problem is that I am writing this in 2015, and this book transported me to the magical summer of 1970 when the Childs and their friends coincidentally were all there together and cooked wonderful simple meals together that made the most of the fresh ingredients they had access to. The Childs opened their home to friends and neighbors and they all cooked together. James Beard and Simone Beck each stayed for a while, and Richard Olney was just down the road. I had read a number of biographies of Julia Child so I knew about this summer, but Barr’s book truly brings it to life because he takes us into the motivations and lives of some of the other key figures in the food world. I finished the book with a new appreciation for Richard Olney’s perfectionism, James Beards’s health problems, MFK Fisher’s wanderlust.

Trained in the complex world of French sauces and fare, Barr, with the help of his access to Fisher’s papers (he is her grandnephew), shows us how they all reached the point of saturation at roughly the same time, and each sought simplicity in their own way. He calls it the “reinvention of American taste” but I would argue that it wasn’t until these cookbook authors and some others transformed European (read French) cooking into a distinctly uncomplicated cuisine that American cooking was born.