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.


I have always dreamed of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Laugh. Go ahead, it’s fine, because it’s never going to happen. The 2015 prizewinners will be announced tomorrow, and I will not be one of them. It may surprise you that I aspired to win the Pulitzer Prize in biography, not fiction or poetry. I wanted to take a fascinating, meaty subject, spend years in libraries poring over documents and letters, travel to where the subject lived, and write an inciteful, newly factual biography that changed the world’s perception of my subject. When I read biographies I always imagine the author’s process in detail. The research, the travel, the writing, the editing. For me, putting myself in the author’s shoes, seeing how they create the narrative web and introduce their research is part of the fun of reading a biography.

With a big birthday coming up later this year, I have been doing the expected reflection on my life and my accomplishments and lack thereof. Assessing the old bucket list. Crossing “Pulitzer Prize in Biography” right off there with a big bold black Sharpie. Last night I dreamt that the Dalai Lama and I were having a cup of tea together (meeting the Dalai Lama: also on the bucket list. It never happened, but I once attended a sunrise service that he led in Central Park). In the dream the Dalai Lama said to me, “Take two steps back.” That’s all: take two steps. Not one. Nothing more. I believe the cliché is to take “a step back and reflect on your life.” He didn’t say that, he just said to take two steps back. So now, as my coffee is perking this morning, I am wondering what he meant by two steps. By the second step, not just the first.

And I think I know.

Normally, in the whole bucket list assessment stage of life, people look at their lives thus far and make replacements. They take a step back and say to themselves, “I didn’t do X because Y happened, so I did Z and now I’m glad I did, I realize now I wouldn’t have been happy with X.” In my case, I had a lot of surgeries from my mid-teens until the end of my 30s. When I turned 40 I took one step back and determined that marriage and motherhood were apparently out of the picture for me, and settled down to accept that, even though motherhood had been an enormous dream for me, something I thought I could never live without doing. Fate intervened and I married the right guy at 41 and we now have a terrific teenage son. We knew each other and had gone on one date to a Grateful Dead concert in our teens. He was home from college for the summer, I was a rising high school senior. He went back to college, I moved on. A friend reintroduced us 24 years later. I remember sitting next to him on my couch that night so many years later feeling the immensity of our connection. It came over me: “Ah, so it’s going to be Ben Horowitz, the guy who lived around the corner and started an underground newspaper with his friends. After all these years, he turns out to be the one. Hmm. Cool.” They say that sometimes you just know, and I did. But I wish we had had those 24 years together. So does he.

I regret not listening to Hank Chapin, the literature professor who advised me to take education courses to become a licensed teacher as a “back-up” in case the whole poetry and academic thing didn’t work out. It didn’t. I ended up in bookselling and publishing. The bookselling years were among the best I’ve had. If I’d become the high school English teacher he envisioned, I would probably be retiring about now with a nice pension having spent wonderful summers on the beach in Cape Cod or traveling through Europe and Asia. I couldn’t admit it to anyone then, but I’ll tell you now why I didn’t become an English teacher: I was afraid I would have to teach literature I didn’t love. I didn’t think I could teach large sweeping novels by the likes of Dickens, for instance. I couldn’t get through Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. What high school English teacher doesn’t revere those classics? I couldn’t tell my professor that I was a Lit. major fraud. Loved Huck Finn, hated The Old Man and the Sea. I slithered away, and took the wrong path.

I saw things in black and white, all or nothing. In our college years, before we get out in the “real world,” many of us naively think that we are going to spend our lives tending to our passions and nothing else. Boring adult jobs are for those who don’t know how to do it right. We know better. We won’t end up like the father in The Wonder Years who looks through his telescope in his backyard on clear summer nights and tells his son he doesn’t regret becoming a shipping manager instead of an astronomer. We would be astronomers! Into your starry eyes, baby! We would figure out a way to earn a living doing what we loved, changing the world on an inspired high every single minute. I wish I had had the maturity to realize that although I might have been compelled to teach A Tale of Two Cities, I would probably have also been able to teach Walden and the transcendentalists, and that would have made it worthwhile. It’s not all or nothing. I was too stupid to see that.

And that’s where I think the second of the Dalai Lama in my dream’s steps comes in. Step one could be to conclude that I didn’t become a high school English teacher but I did end up in a wonderful career in bookselling and publishing. Except that I didn’t. There were about ten or more years in there that were pretty horrific. And I have most certainly not taken a 25-year retirement package. Now, as managing editor of a small scholarly press I can say that I enjoy most aspects of what I do every day, and the inspired moments outweigh the drudgery of assessing author’s royalties and approving invoices. I am lucky to have a boss who encourages creativity and intellectual analysis. I haven’t written a groundbreaking book on a major biographical subject but my work did afford me the opportunity to contribute some new scholarship to the field of legal history in the book The Unsigned Essays of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. I’m delighted to have been able to identify and publish some writings of the great legal mind that were originally published anonymously. But I would have preferred to have written a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Louisa May Alcott or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Edgar Allen Poe.

It didn’t work out better in the end. I did something good, but it is not what I wanted and still want to do — and now won’t be able to do because there isn’t enough time left.

I have regrets, yes, I have a few. If the first step is to accept one’s failures, I think the Dalai Lama of my dream was telling me that the second step is to forgive myself. You have to do a lot of work and step back a lot further to get to that sweet spot of true forgiveness. You can’t rationalize anymore, you have to take responsibility for the wrongs. First you are angry with yourself, you don’t want to forgive yourself, you want to be mad. You want to wallow in the regret. You acknowledge that it’s bad, that you screwed up, and that you are going to die and will never have a chance to do those things you didn’t do. You have to own your mistakes, feel like crap about them, beat yourself up over them, and then you can let them go. Don’t just cross them off the list, erase them. Start a new batch of items on your bucket list that you can probably achieve and go to your grave not hating yourself for if you don’t accomplish them. I’m working on my new list now. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Looking for a great holiday gift for the cozy mystery reader on your list? Don’t know what to buy, or what books have been read? Chances are they’ll find all of their favorite authors (including me!) in this cookbook, available in paperback and in Kindle.

James Beard Foundation, 167 West 12th Street, exterior-byEileen-Miller

James Beard Foundation, 167 West 12th Street, exterior-byEileen-Miller

On Thursday night, October 30, at the James Beard Foundation in New York, Francesco Palmieri of the Orange Squirrel Restaurant prepared a dinner based on recipes from Mary and Vincent Price’s masterful cookbook, A Treasury of Great Recipes (1965).

Francesco Palmieri, The Orange Squirrel Restaurant

Francesco Palmieri, The Orange Squirrel Restaurant

vp cookbookIn this magnificently designed and photographed book the Prices offer recipes from some of the finest restaurants in the world. (I wrote about it at length, and the Orange Squirrel, in an earlier blog–scroll down to see “The Book,” below, 7/27/14.)

Victoria Price, Vincent’s daughter,  co-hosted the event and introduced the Vincent Price Signature Wine Collection. I planned to be there, and was looking forward to it. Instead I was home, sidelined by torn ligaments, eating soup for dinner. I am disappointed, but last Saturday night’s (Oct. 25) dinner at the Inn at Millrace Pond has softened the blow.

Entrance to Inn at Millrace Pond, Hope, NJ

Entrance to Inn at Millrace Pond, Hope, NJ

Pumpkins lit with candles graced the entrance path

Pumpkins lit with candles graced the entrance path

Jody Price, Vincent’s grandson, hosted the Inn’s third tribute dinner to Vincent Price. While we dined, he played inspired instrumental guitar. After dinner he talked about his memories of his grandfather, and gave an entertaining description of his father’s life in films, and as an art-lover and foodie. My favorite of his wonderful stories was the story of the time when his phone rang and a friend woke him up, shouting, “Hey, turn on your TV! You’re on the Simpsons!” It turned out that in the “Sunday, Cruddy Sunday” episode that was shown after the 1999 Super Bowl, the voice of Vincent Price tells Marge Simpson that his grandson, Jody, will bring her the missing feet from her celebrity craft kit.

Jody shows the crowd (my mother) Sally Murphy's first edition copy of the cookbook.

Jody shows the crowd (my mother) Sally Murphy’s first edition copy of the cookbook.



Jody was joined during the question and answer period by Victoria, who arrived late after a long day at the Chiller Theater Toy, Model, and Film Expo where she met her father’s horror fans and gave a talk about his life. Jody’s brother Keir Price was at the dinner too. Victoria spoke of how, on the 21st anniversary of the day of her father’s death, he would have been pleased that the three of them were together, since for so many years their family was in different parts of the country and didn’t see each other often enough.

Jody and Victoria share a story.

Jody and Victoria share a story.

The special prix fixe dinner ($49.) featured:

Choice of one appetizer, soup or salad:

Slow roasted butternut squash soup (an Inn specialty)

Crab stuffed avocado with wild mushrooms and almonds (page 360, from Hotel Hana-Maui, no prices given on the menu reproduced in the book—they must have supplied the ladies’ menu 🙂

Classic Caesar salad (page 185, from Harrods Food Hall, London)

Potato gnocchi with pancetta, shitake, oven-dried tomato and garlic spinach (page 394, from the Blue Fox, San Francisco, $2.00 on the menu reproduced in the book)

Choice of one entrée:

Pan seared scallop and shrimp risotto Milanese with sweet peas and roasted red peppers (shrimp risotto Milanese, page 103, from the Royal Daniele, Venice, $6.00 on the menu reproduced in the book)

Filet mignon au poivre with chive Yukon mash and baby carrots (an Inn specialty)

Chicken cordon bleu with wild mushroom supreme, chive Yukon mash and baby carrots (an Inn specialty)

Photo by Ian Horowitz

Photo by Ian Horowitz

Choice of one dessert:

White chocolate macadamia crème brulee (page 163, The Ivy, London, with additions of the Inn’s chef, $4.00 on the menu reproduced in the book)

Cheese cake with seasonal berries an Grand Marnier (page 317, Bookbinder’s, Philadelphia, with additions of the Inn’s chef. Not on the Bookbinder’s menu reproduced in the book, which is very strange because Price says, in his head-note, “This is one of the best cheesecakes I’ve ever had anywhere. Its recipe has long been a secret at Bookbinder’s where it is their most popular dessert, and they were loath to divulge it. I’m glad they finally have…”)

Chocolate mousse cake with crème anglaise (an Inn specialty)

Apple lattice pie with bourbon glaze (an Inn specialty)

I savored the crab stuffed avocado with wild mushrooms and almonds. That is a recipe I will definitely try to emulate. For the entrée I had the filet mignon, potatoes and vegetables. I knew they wouldn’t be based on a recipe in the cookbook, but I knew I made the right choice when I tasted the melt-in-your-mouth filet. The Inn uses vegetables from nearby Tranquility Farm, and the carrots were among the tenderest I’ve tasted. For dessert I had the apple lattice pie. Since I am an avid apple pie baker, I couldn’t resist, and I was not disappointed. Those in my group who had the cheese cake said it was the best they ever tasted. Another recipe for me to take on! The rest of my family reported that every dish exceeded their expectations, especially the pan-seared scallop and shrimp risotto Milanese. We all found the quality of the meal and the lovely surroundings exceptional for the price. If it hadn’t been a special event, it still would have been well worth it.

My son, Ian Horowitz, at the entrance, next to the "Vincent Price Dinner, Tavern Full" sign.

My son, Ian Horowitz, at the entrance, next to the “Vincent Price Dinner, Tavern Full” sign.

The inn is simply lovely—we dined in the Grist Mill, built in 1769 by Moravian settlers and restored 20 years ago. Upstairs rooms have been decorated period style, 3 with canopy beds, all with beamed ceilings, and modern amenities including whirlpool tubs. The main floor holds the large dining room. We dined in the smaller tavern, downstairs, and the trip down the stairs was an adventure in itself!

Skeleton on stairs down to the tavern.

Skeleton on stairs down to the tavern.


Love this!

Love this!

The tavern also features beamed ceilings and a large stone fireplace.

During the dinner Price’s Edgar Allen Poe films were shown on two screens. “He once said that he might not have had the best career of all actors, but no one had as much fun as him,” Jody told us.

Wine cellar and grist mill wheel, outside the tavern entrance

Wine cellar and grist mill wheel, outside the tavern entrance

I think Vincent would have loved the spider web strewn over the wine collection, next to the giant grist mill wheel. He would have been delighted by the pumpkin with his face carved in it. The talented, creative staff outdid themselves in their decorations.

Vincent Price pumkin

Vincent Price pumpkin

Thank you, Jody, for hosting this event and sharing your family’s celebration. It was a pleasure, and a lot of fun, to honor Vincent Price’s life with you.

I was especially pleased that my mother, Sally Murphy, was able to meet the Price family, and that our family—two of my cousins (whose mother met Vincent Price in Bermuda with Mom), my husband, son and brother—were able to be there for this very special evening.

Victoria Price and Sally Murphy, holding the first editions Vincent Price inscribed in 1985 for Mom when she met him on a trip to Bermuda.

Victoria Price and Sally Murphy, holding the first editions Vincent Price inscribed in 1985 for Mom when she met him on a trip to Bermuda.

Victoria inscribes a copy of Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography, newly released in paperback, for Mom.

Victoria inscribes a copy of Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, newly released in paperback, for Mom.

Although my family and I have been cooking from the cookbook since it was published, this was the first restaurant event we’ve attended that offered some of those recipes. Well done, chef!

For more information about the Inn at Millrace Pond, see

For more information about Vincent Price’s legacy, see

For news about all things related to the cookbook, and Victoria’s wonderful blog, see

For information about the James Beard Foundation dinner, Vincent Price: legendary Gourmet, see

The Vincent Price Collection II, a seven-film, four-disc Blu-ray set from Scream Factory, was released this month and includes House on Haunted Hill, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, The Raven (directed by Roger Corman, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, stars Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff along with a young Jack Nicholson), The Comedy of Terrors, The Tomb of Ligeia, The Last Man on Earth and The Return of the Fly.

And of course, my book, Cinnamon Girl,a mystery set in a cookbook store,  inspired by the cookbook and containing recipes from it and other treasured cookbooks, is available on Amazon:

It’s finally cool to be smart. The television show Scorpion — another show about geniuses, this one packed full of them! — debuted on Monday night, and CBS re-ran the pilot episode last night. After the Big Bang Theory, The Mentalist, Sherlock Holmes, Person of Interest and Numbers, I was ready for more, and Scorpion delivered something different. The cool factor.

The idea of a group of geniuses — one a computer genius who is the 4th smartest person in the world, another a mechanical genius, a statistics genius and a psychological genius — teaming up with an “average woman” whose role is to humanize them (in turn they will help her understand her genius son) to work with Homeland Security to help save the world, while seeming pretty pat, is, in my view, inspirational.

I love that the show is based on Walter O’Brien, who wrote an algorithm that tracked motion on all the cameras within a two-mile radius of the Boston Marathon blast and helped find the bomber by demonstrating that his facial expression did not change after the bombs went off. The events in the beginning of the episode—his home in Ireland being raided by authorities after he hacked into NASA’s computer system at the age of 13—are true. He now runs the successful computer security firm, Scorpion Computer Services.

I hope they minimize the “we’re so smart we don’t tap into our emotions” vibe in later episodes. Sheldon Cooper gives us enough of that. Why can’t someone be super-smart, eccentric, march to the beat of a different drum, and also emotionally capable of warmth and love? Leonard Hofstadter can, so let’s see some of that, Scorpion writers.

The Scorpion gang are clearly cool nerds, and I hope that will resonate with teenagers. Solving world problems is a powerful theme on television, and there is no shortage of crime-fighters and problem-solvers. So many of those characters admirably work to save the world, but ultimately the action involves guns and violence. I mean you Homeland, NCIS and its spinoffs. It’s nice to see a show where the saving is done with brain power and not gun powder.

The pilot episode of Scorpion had one of the most exciting action chase scenes — involving an airplane flying over a Ferrarri — that I’ve ever seen, and it did not involve a gun. Cool. Smart. Non-violent. Successful. Kudos.

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Last week in my blog What exactly is a Cozy Mystery? I promised to address their popularity in my next blog.
First, let’s talk about why mystery novels are so popular. The common notion is that people read mysteries because they want a puzzle, something to figure out. I believe that people read mysteries because they want to use their mind when they are reading, they want to be involved in the experience. They want to read actively, rather than passively receive the experience of the words.

What is it about cozies in particular, that make them so popular? Beyond the attraction of different genres, I believe the reason is the Cheers Factor. The television show Cheers was set in a small bar in Boston, a place “where everyone knows your name.” You thought I was going to say the Cabot Cove Factor, didn’t you? Doesn’t everyone want to live in Cabot Cove? Recognize Jessica’s house above? Doesn’t everyone long to live in a charming small town vacation spot where they know everyone, have lots of time to pursue their interests, have lovely surroundings, and a comfortable life? That is all true, of course, but I believe that the Cheers Factor DRIVES the Cabot Cove Factor. We are more and more isolated in modern times and long for a place “where everyone knows your name.”
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On August 2nd I participated in a panel entitled LET’S GET COZY at the Deadly Ink Mystery Conference at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, New Jersey. K. B. Inglee was the moderator. The other panelists were Steve Rigolosi, Peggy Ehrhart, John Clement, Ilene Schneider and Jane Kelly. We discussed what makes a mystery a cozy and why cozies are so popular.

Although I can already think of exceptions to nearly every point I list, here is what, in my view, comprises a cozy mystery. In my next blog I’ll tackle their popularity.

Protagonist is an amateur, a civilian, thrown into the mystery by happenstance. She is often a woman, and one the reader can identify with, with one or two relatable flaws. She has an interesting career or interest that leads her (sometimes reluctantly) to the mystery. She can be any age.

Setting is a small environment of people, an idealized community we’d all love to live in: a neighborhood in a city, a small town, a fishing village, a theatre, perhaps even a school. A place where everyone knows each other. One could argue that the Harry Potter books are cozies, with Hogwarts the small community of people. When we think “cozy mystery” we usually think of a small English village created by Agatha Christie. The death occurs “off screen”—we do not witness the violent act. There isn’t any gore or blood.

Sex is downplayed or nonexistent.

Profanity is minimal or nonexistent.

Often the protagonist has a friend or family member who is connected to the authorities somehow—the police, the mayor’s office, the school principal, medical examiner, a detective or security company.

Sometimes the supporting characters are a bit offbeat or eccentric, adding humor and whimsy to the book.

The murderers are not serial killers or psychopaths, they are people the reader can identify with, but some circumstance has caused them to snap.

In recent years, niche cozies have evolved. If you are interested in antique prints, cats, dogs, quilting, bookbinding, knitting, old house or furniture restoration, inns, Civil war reenactments, wineries, whitewater rafting, golf, cooking, baking… whatever it is, there is undoubtedly a cozy mystery about it.

The emphasis is on plot and characters, not action.

The books are usually written in series form so that the reader can enjoy the main characters and the community through numerous mysteries.

Don’t think that cozies are just for women. There are a number of cozies written by and for men. Many are niche cozies about topics that are traditionally “male” interest: golf, historic house/inn or general home renovation, fishing. I have never seen a football cozy but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has written one!

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