I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

Did somebody say “Giverny?”

I just stumbled onto a cache of more than 600 recent photos of Giverny, Monet’s home, surrounding town, delicious-looking French desserts, and watercolors. Not a bad way to end the day. Thought you would enjoy a look, in particular as an accompaniment to the previous blog post about this magical place.

Be sure to browse not only the photo collection but also the Paris Breakfasts blog, about which I will write a great deal at some point in the future.

Have fun!

Giverny-return

Next Spring, Near Paris

Start saving your money. Next May, go to Paris. Leave early on the morning–there’s an 820AM from Paris’s Saint-Lazare Station to Vernon, and then, there’s the taxi. The train arrives at 9:05AM at Vernon, and the cab will get you to the front entrance of Monet’s home and gardens by about 9:15AM. You want to arrive early, perhaps catch the mist rising from the water garden, perhaps take a few pictures or just gaze before the crowds populate every view. (Get there earlier, if you can; it’s always best to arrive first-in-line here.)

Sigh.

Summer is ending. There is autumn color: the purples and luminous yellows, the garish reds and the beginnings of orange trees reflected in the water. But there is nothing like spring.

In 1883, Claude Monet settled in Giverny, a village fifty miles outside paris. He rented a house with an orchard, the future Clos Normand, the flower garden at the front of the house that broke with the traditional idea of a pleasure garden.

9781419709609So begins the tale, told mostly in large, vivacious images, of Claude Monet’s extraordinary gardens (and home), told with love and with style through Jean-Pierre Gilson’s photographs, with text by Dominique Lobstein. Published by Abrams–one of the best in the world at this type of book, the visual tour begins, as it should , in the purple haze and tangled wisteria branches hanging over the famous Japanese bridge. The photograph is subdued; there are no bright colors yet. On the next two-page spread, there are brightly–colored bushes and their quiet reflections, house peeking out of the background behind some trees. Flip to the next of these several two-page spreads and it’s a riot of roses, glowing in the sun, red, pink, nearly white, braced by green leaves so dark and sometimes so nearly translucent, bold as can be. The text begins.

And on the next spread, so does spring. After the prelude, spring commences with a field of pink tulips, clean green fences and stair rails, dark green-blue leaves, and the stunning-but-simple house with its own pink facade and blue-green shutters. The effect is stunning, as if in a painting–and here, that’s precisely the effect that the master painter intended. To be at Giverny is to live inside a Monet painting, at least for a morning.

It’s not all cluttered with noisy flowers and oh-so-subtle impressionist gardening. “Monet wanted a garden that could ‘breathe’ with flowers, bushes and an open vista…” so he removed the many trees from the old orchard, and replaced them with Japanese cherry trees that yield, at least for a brief time in the spring, lighter-than-air blossoms, punctuated, here and there, as in any number of his paintings, with spots of bright color; here, red and purple tulips.

I wish I knew the name of every flower (and I wish the author’s captions included this information!). The phenomenal two-page spread showing yellow towers of flowers two stories high, dappled with pink-and-purple irises, golden yellow somethings (frustrated…), and it’s followed by several more. (I want to it to be spring today, and I want to go to Giverny tomorrow.)

And then, when your head is beginning to explode because Monet was such a genius, there’s a pair of small green rowboats, a field of happy daffodils, and in the distance, the Japanese bridge that he painted so often. Here, with a less exhausting spectrum, it’s possible to rest and reflect, and observe. The yellowy green of the locust leaves in contrast with the deep green of the background trees–with just a hint of small violet flowers to set the counterpoint.

The flighty, wavy petals of mauve tulips surprise me every time I see them. Here, they’re pictured with the famous lily pad pond in the fuzzy distance, and the sharp, sun-dappled orange wallflowers in the foreground. Another two-page spread, one of my favorite two-page spreads in the book.

Just checking–I’m not even half way through the book. Some surreal lily pad images–two look as though they were made for a science fiction film, but they are real–and then, with a page turn, there are paths of dry ochre leaves on the ground, paths with strong color of fall, not spring. The quiet beauty of barren trees and cool skies, the yellowing willow and golden hour light, it’s bittersweet. Moreso because the last set of images show the house with shutters now closed tight.

But then, we get to go inside. A row of old copper pans artfully hung in front of a blue-and-turquoise tiled wall with cabinets. A yellow dining room whose walls are filled with Japanese prints (Monet collected them, and they are a highlight of every Giverny tour, but few people spend the time to look at them as closely as the artist once did). It’s a classy old country home, less formal than most. And then, there’s a small staircase leading down to a room with Persian carpets on the floor and a whole lot of miscellaneous Monet paintings almost haphazardly scattered on the walls. It’s his studio.

The book closes with snow. Which means spring is coming again. Soon.

Food: The Meta-layer

Past few months, everybody’s talking about the meta-layer. We don’t just watch TV. We add a meta-layer, tweeting about the Academy Awards, commenting on comments–ideas piled on ideas. We’re learning to comment on everything, with or without the requisite knowledge of the facts involved, rarely with the research needed to form a coherent opinion.

Not so with Mr. Gopnik, whose past stories about his young family’s life in Paris (Paris to the Moon) and their return to Manhattan (Through the Children’s Gate) are among my most-recommended books, and whose 2011 book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food has provided several months of nourishing food for thought, or thoughts about food, probably some of each.

Where did restaurants come from? Who came up with the idea of not just eating outside the home, but dining there? (Long answer, begins around the French revolution). Quite rightly, he compares the restaurant customer to an aristocrat, accustomed to being served (and served beautifully). Gopnik delights in grazing through the thoughts of Brillat-Savarin and Grimod–two early, influential writers about food and dining–but I like the bit that he found in Robert Frost best:

“Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, when you go there, they not only have to take you in but act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.”

This is a book in which New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik thinks about food, and thinks about how others think, and have thought, about food. He goes deep, with some chapters so mired in philosophy or history that they eventually become indigestible. Fortunately, these are exceptions. And when the going becomes thick, he pauses for to write an email to Elizabeth Pennell, who wrote with intelligence and wisdom about food about a century ago; these chatty emails cover the true benefits of cinnamon, the best ways to cook lamb, the extraordinary use of hot air in the hard-to-find and hard-to-cook pommel soufflés, his dog Butterscotch’s love for steak, and other lighthearted stuff.

Adam Gopnik is a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

This is not a book to read over a single meal. It is, instead, book to be savored, bit by bit, over several months. There is simply too much information, too many glimpses and meta ideas, too much richness and provocation and serious research, to be enjoyed quickly. It is slow food for the brain–imagine that, in an era of emails and tweets–much of it about topics I’ve never really thought much about.

For example, Gopnik compares “cook it at home” recipe books that restaurants sell with the home game version of, say, Hollywood Squares. Certainly, there is a resemblance, but the resources and the spicing are entirely different, and so is the experience. He tells a long and funny/odd story about his search for a live chicken that can be purchased, cooked, and eaten within the bounds of New York City, and another about the cleverness of farming tilapia to feed large urban populations, then adds the zesty meta-layer, invoking Adam Smith and the total cost associated with what he believes to be a current fad for localism. And so:

“If Kenyan greens take less total energy than Plattsburgh tomatoes, then we should revel in them no matter how far they have to travel.”

And so it goes, through questions about whether we really can taste the differences between wines (or whether the situation and the artifice overpower the actual human capacity for taste), the imperfection of memory as it applies to the fancy French restaurants of 20th century Manhattan, why sugar was used mostly to flavor tea in England but became the impetus for the pasty industry in France, the various ethical arguments for and against the slaughter of animals for human consumption, and so much more.

As with his own food choices–today, spicy beans and rice, tomorrow, a complicated and challenging attempt at a classic French dish from a century ago–some sections are rich with friendly storytelling and some are thick with pretense, serious thinking, and historical reconsiderations. Unlike Twitter, you need not absorb every idea in an instant. There is time enough to consider the meta-layer, to appreciate the fine writing that has long been Gopnik’s strong suit, time enough to think about what Gopnik has said about what others have said and done, and perchance, to learn something about their ideas by reading Brillat-Savarin in the original (on my list, but not for this year).

%d bloggers like this: