A found family journal, a handful of culinary icons and an historic time for the future of food in America, culminate into Luke Barr’s “Provence, 1970”—recently nominated for a James Beard Award in Writing and Literature. Barr shares some insight into his book, and hints regarding travel through Europe and Provence specifically, with TravelingMom readers.
Barr, an author and Features Director for Travel + Leisure Magazine, explains his book actually came about somewhat by accident. After working on a story a few years ago about Aix-en-Provence, his great-aunt, M.F.K. Fisher—considered a “pioneer” in the art of food writing–and his grandmother, Norah, who traveled alongside Fisher taking ocean liners through Europe together, Barr traveled to Provence. He also ended up gaining access to a notebook—a daily journal—of M.F.’s time in Provence in 1970—and stumbled upon the fact that all these great “food people” (Julia Child, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Richard Olney, Simone Beck, and editor Judith Jones) converged here at the same time, talking about eating, drinking and writing about food—and more importantly—changing the discussion of what food in America could and should be moving forward.
Barr explains in his book why this particular moment in time is so key. All these food icons had
“discovered” food in Europe—in France. He says it was a seminal experience for them, in which “a simple piece of fish, or amazing butter, or fresh vegetables, for example, gave each of them an epiphany about food.“ France was their inspiration and always had been. Yet in 1970, things were changing. “This idea of French superiority—they’d had enough of that.” People were also becoming more interested in international cooking of all kinds– there was more going on than just French cooking. (This despite the fact that Julia Child had just published Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 2.) But “these food greats were realizing they had to “move out of the shadow of France in some way,” Barr says, and this provides the backdrop and drama for the story. What follows is a roadmap to thoughts, emotions and food experiences of some of the greatest culinary figures of our time. It’s a book that’s bound to inspire you to not only take advantage of food encountered while traveling, but also may get you into your kitchen experimenting with wonderful new recipes.
What would your great aunt, M.F.K. Fisher, say about the current day ‘Food World?”
Barr recounts how he’d interviewed Judith Jones, a book editor who is known for, among other things, editing some of the great chefs. He says that Jones told him that food is about cooking and the sense of community in the kitchen, cooking for your loved ones. It’s not about the spectacle of the restaurant or the theatrical presentation of the food on the plate—and he says he could sense a kind of impatience with this contemporary trend in the food world. Barr says he doesn’t watch any of these new food shows—and that he agrees with many of Jones’ sentiments. But, he goes on to explain the quality of the food that we have access to now is so far superior to anything that was around back then. For instance, he tells of how his mother made her own bread because they couldn’t get anything decent in the stores. So, although people can complain all they want about multiple channels, multiple food shows and food becoming a spectator sport, the huge interest in food has lead to a revolution in the quality of food we can get in our homes any day of the week. “I’m sure that M.F. and Julia Child, if they were around today, would be saluting that.”
How can we integrate good cuisine into our travels?
“Food is a huge element of travel. People travel in order to experience another culture, another place, and in a lot of ways, food and cooking is a very accessible, pleasurable way to get that authentic experience. For example, if you travel to Tokyo, you don’t travel to McDonald’s-you want to eat the local food. I travel with my family, with my kids, sometimes with other relatives and often times, I rent a house. That means you have a kitchen, and that to me is really the key to immersive travel. You’re not only cooking, you’re shopping, going to the baker, the butcher, the farmer’s market…it can be incredibly fun, taking it all home and cooking something. It’s easier and easier to do with websites and people renting out their apartments and people renting out their places. People want to have that immersive culture experience.”
Barr adds that hotels are savvy to this trend as well. If you aren’t renting a house, a good hotel may run a little tour of a local farmer’s market. He says, if you seek out experiences, often times through food, you may gain access to behind-the-scenes experiences that make travel even more immersive.
What about travelers on a budget?
“All the things I’ve said are true if you’re on a budget. You can rent a home on a budget. As a matter of fact, if you’re traveling with family, you may want that extra room that comes with a home. Going out to the market or the local butcher, you may find it’s an easy way to save, as well as get another kind of experience.”
Barr’s top 3 places to recommend in Provence
- “My favorite restaurant out of Aix proper is in the town of Le Tholonet, called “Chez Thome”. It’s a fabulous, not fancy, little country restaurant that’s been around for a long time.”
- “Aix-en-Provence’s Farmer’s market is amazing. (Also the food market in Cannes is also wonderful—with a fantastic selection of every single kind of vegetable, fishes, prepared foods, sauces…)”
- “You can take cooking classes in Julia Child’s former Provence kitchen—which has been preserved from the way it was used when Julia was cooking there.” This is through a program called “Cooking with Friends in France.”
Unusual things discovered during Barr’s last trip to Europe
- In Switzerland, I have a close friend who lives in the Alps, and in order to get there, you take the train to Geneva and then take a much smaller train that winds its way up through the Alps. Called the “panorama” train, it has big curved windows so you can see really well. You’ll have a great view of the lake below and can watch as it gets higher and higher.”
- In a recent article from Travel + Leisure, about Biarritz—which is on the South coast—”you’ll learn about a place that’s not nearly as fancy, polished or glamorous, but it’s a wonderful place to explore. It’s a classic resort destination from 100 years ago, and then over the years it fell on hard times. But in the last 20 years it’s been revitalized and there are many cool things happening there. Beautiful beaches, for instance that you can drive down the coast and see—and you can find secret beaches.”
Barr is now working on his next book.