Despite its flaws -- an author not quite equal to his subjects and not fully convincing in his loose thesis, as well as problems of pacing, padding, and compulsive repetition -- Luke Barr's Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste [Kindle] stays readable thanks to its idyllic setting and stellar cast. The majority of those stars were queer: thrice-married bisexual MFK Fisher, old guard gay chef James Beard, upstart gay cook Richard Olney, and lesbian partners Sybille Bedford and Eda Lord. More gay men cruise the background including Beard's longtime partner pastry chef Gino Coffaci, NYT critic Craig Claiborne, and Fisher's high-flying friend David Pleydell-Bouverie. Of this rich, homo banquet Barr can serve forth only two crumbs: one observation that "catty" "snobs" Bedford and Olney hit it off because their orientation made them both outsiders, and one passing mention of Stonewall the previous year. The straight stars are supernovas, Julia & Paul Child and her editor Judith Jones, with glimpses of imperial Simone Beck and sweet Nora Barr, who is Fisher's sister and the author's grandmother. Luke Barr's lasting contribution here is having unearthed his great aunt MF's lost diary of this trip.
Readers may imagine from the book's subtitle a cause and effect -- because these gastro kingpins gathered, they actually discussed and decided something about the future of American food together -- but the reality is trickier. They were all on separate vacations, barely overlapping, and each had already decided to switch directions. In December 1970 Beard was years into his American Cookery, Julia months earlier had resolved to split from Simca Beck and go solo for her future books, and MFK Fisher's food career was largely behind her: Maybe the trip altered her long-held views of France, but after that she published only one new full-length work (a memoir of Marseille) and a few collections gathering older and more recent pieces.
Nevertheless it's a pleasure to see so many fascinating people in a beautiful spot before it was spoiled. If the book's greatest moments of brio and dynamism come from excerpts of its subjects' writing, you can go directly to their memoirs: Julia's My Life in France [Kindle], Beard's Delights And Prejudices, Richard Olney's Reflexions, Sybille Bedford's Quicksands, MFK Fisher's The Art of Eating, and Judith Jones' wonderful The Tenth Muse [Kindle]. Do not underestimate her: Jones (below, center) turns 90 this year and her long publishing career spans rescuing The Diary of Anne Frank from the rejection pile to decades of editing John Updike, Anne Tyler, Peter Taylor, and William Maxwell and scores of classic cookbooks.