Monday, November 11, 2013

Last House in backlight

Yet another benign defeat of
ambition redeems Luke Barr's
new book on his great-aunt,
M.F.K. Fisher and her franco-
phile peers in gastropublish-
ing, Provence, 1970. Mr Barr
is involved in the hedonism
business with Travel & Lei-
sure, and Clarkson Potter set
the bar accordingly low, to
his effort to identify a his-
toric turning point in Amer-
ican culinary culture, as if
there could be any to sift in
the wake of so many first-per-
son accounts from the victors.

It helps, that Barr wasn't ac-
tually there, and that a night
of long knives, ultimately lib-
erating American cuisine from
francophilia, was never so con-
centrated in one place or time
as it is his project to declare.
M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, 
James Beard, and The Reinvention
of American Taste - he means to
include Olney, but it would have
thrown the meter - his subtitle,
gives a robust but partial cast,
as enlistment by Sybille Bedford
and Elizabeth David clarifies,
tending toward a reinvention
which remains anarchic to this 

They dined together, warily, and
with a sectarian bitchiness wor-
thy of Jeremiah Tower, boiling
water. Their quibbling egos make
for tiresomely familiar reading,
to which Barr nevertheless brings
an arresting impartiality as the
foundation for a sharp anatomisa-
tion of snobbery. Ignore the pre-
tense, that the book is a neces-
sary history. It's a provocative
and sensitive scrutiny of rules. 

I've read most of the books by all 
his protagonists, Child excepted;
and like other San Franciscans of
such interests, I was fortunate
to visit one of them in Sonoma.
Now, Barr's survivorship of their
influence is all one has wished
for oneself. He has a gift for
sharing hunger without claiming
it, and taste without regulating
it. A fundamental understanding
the generosity of the casual, 
within the spheres of equable
competence and sympathy, places
him estimably close to two polar
opposites in his text, to expose
ego as the only quality dividing
them into putative factions. His 
gift for characterising their vir-
tues, for restoring their company,
is distinguished, and greatly to
be prized. His understanding ex-
ceeds his own awareness, and this
is a fine failure of ambition in
a field where it flocks intermin-
ably. If he could laugh, he might
be Liebling. 

Luke Barr
Provence, 1970
Clarkson Potter, 2013©

ii  Engraving from Pauillac

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