EXCERPT FROM "PROVENCE, 1970" BY LUKE BARR
A DINNER PARTY AT THE CHILDS’
It was a Sunday evening in mid-December, and Julia and Paul Child were awaiting their dinner guests, M.F. and Beard. They had urged M.F. to bring her friends Eda Lord and Sybille Bedford, too. So they would be six.
Why had she bought such an enormous chicken? Child wondered. It sat on the counter looking rather larger, somehow, than it had at the butcher’s. She’d gone shopping that morning in Plascassier and Grasse, to the excellent Boussageon for meat and various charcuterie items, and to Madame Londi’s, her favorite fruit and vegetable shop. She found Boussageon’s pâté to be fine and carefully flavored. In Cannes the previous day, she and Paul had walked along the narrow rue Meynadier, with its many food and specialty shops selling cheese, chocolate, and macaroons; fish, game, and quiche; and of course an endless selection of Provençal dishware, gifts, and handbags. She ended up buying a smoked salmon that was the biggest she’d ever seen— almost three feet long!
She would roast the chicken and some potatoes, and set out some of the prepared dishes as appetizers, along with fresh bread. She would make a salad. This would be an easy dinner— a casual affair. There would be something simple for dessert.
James Beard arrived early and was soon poking around the kitchen with her. He would make a soup, he said. He began washing and chopping a large amount of chard he had found in her refrigerator.
Child and Beard loved cooking together, and had even given themselves a joint nickname a few years earlier: Gigi, a combination of their names (or at least, the Js in their first names, as pronounced in French). It was silly, of course, but that was the point. The Gigis are in the kitchen, they would say. She wore a bright flower- patterned dress, and he had matched her with an equally colorful bow tie.
Child trimmed the fat from the extra- large roasting chicken, ran it under the cold faucet, and then dried it off with paper towels. She and Beck had disdained this practice rather imperiously in the first volume of Mastering, but had recently changed their minds, deciding it was a necessary precaution against bacteria.
She rubbed butter and salt inside the bird, and then began to truss it with a great length of kitchen string and a large needle. She was an elaborate trusser of birds, tying up the legs at one end and the wings at the other.
She rubbed more butter on the outside of the chicken and then arranged slices of fresh pork fat over the breasts and thighs, and tied them in place with more of the string. She set the very secure-looking bird in a large oval roasting dish and put it in the hot oven.
Beard, meanwhile, was sautéing leeks and garlic in a large pot, for his soup. He was doing his best to keep up a cheerful countenance, but Child could tell it was a strain for him. He sat down frequently to rest his legs.
Paul went to collect some wine for dinner. They had determined that digging a proper wine cave would be preposterously expensive, so they kept their bottles in a cellar- like room beneath the cabanon— the small, one-room stone structure across the driveway where Paul had his painting studio. It had a window looking over the valley.
The sun was setting and the sky was dark as Paul, bottles of Bordeaux in hand, heard Eda Lord’s VW Bug sputtering up the steep unpaved driveway. He waved as Lord pulled in next to his rented Renault. She emerged with Bedford and M.F., all of them shutting doors and calling hellos.
Julia opened the side door directly to the kitchen, and she and Beard welcomed them in. Paul took the corkscrew from its hook on the Peg-Board kitchen wall and opened the wine. The kitchen smelled wonderful, and they all offered to help— arranging some of the smoked salmon and pâté on plates, setting the table, stringing beans. Dinner at La Pitchoune was a communal affair. Julia presided in the kitchen in her apron, towering over her guests. Everyone pitched in.
Beard’s soup was simmering on the stovetop, the improvised chard and tomato soup, with various other tidbits tossed in. Child gleefully dubbed it the “Soupe Barbue”— the “Bearded Soup,” after its maker.
The mood in the kitchen was very different at La Pitchoune than it was at the Childs’ house in Cambridge. At home, Julia ran a working kitchen: Recipes were tested, alternate ingredients and methods were tried out, nothing was left to chance. The contents of her two refrigerators were carefully indexed and posted on their doors. There was evidence of her rigorous process everywhere you looked— competing versions of the same dish cooling on the counter, recipe notes and annotations stuck to the wall. “Put it to the test” was the spirit of the place.
Provence, on the other hand, was a free-for-all. No one was overly self- conscious: “Will Julia approve of this vinaigrette?” was not a thought that crossed anyone’s mind. The kitchen was a happy, casual, slightly tipsy melee— chaotic fun. Paul poured more wine. Everyone seemed to be talking at the same time.
Was there a better smell in the world than a chicken roasting in the oven? The slowly crisping skin, the sizzling noises reaching a crescendo. Julia had removed the pork fat for the final browning, and now she proclaimed dinner ready.
PÂTÉ DE CAMPAGNE AND SMOKED SALMON
The round table was set in the main living room, the pâté and smoked salmon at its center, and Paul was cutting up a baguette. There was a fire crackling in the large f replace. M.F., Beard, Lord, and Bedford began to arrange themselves at the table, carrying their wineglasses. In the kitchen, Julia took the bird from the oven to let it rest a bit before carving. To make sure it was completely cooked, she cut into the leg.
Quel désastre! It was bloody!
“You’d think,” Julia said, laughing, “that I’d know how to cook a chicken by now!” Well, it had been an exceedingly large chicken. It would go right back into the oven.
M.F. and Beard laughed. Paul pretended to be irritated— the delay meant he’d have to open more bottles of wine. He went out to the cabanon to replenish supplies.
At dinner, half an hour or so later, they talked politics and food. Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia was bemoaned. The quality of the local ham and salmon were celebrated. The wine was praised.
Bedford was mostly in good form, M.F. thought— thank God, as she could be boringly diff cult sometimes, especially when it came to discussing wine. As for Lord, she was quiet and enigmatic, as usual. Julia and Paul were relaxed and happy, and Beard seemed cheerful, though his health was on everyone’s mind. “We worry about him,” Julia wrote in a letter to M.F. the following week. “The sight of those mahogany legs that one glimpses between pant cuff and sock are frightening. He seems depressed, although manages to hide it— and no wonder. What a dear and generous friend he is. One can only pray that he will manage.”
Privately, Julia and Paul thought the situation was dire: “Our dear fat friend is on his way out,” they said to each other. “We must steel ourselves.”
M.F., meanwhile, found herself contemplating the design of a special chair for Beard, on small, silent wheels that would allow him to move around, upright, without burdening his overworked legs— “zipping deftly here and there behind the counters in his kitchens, still taller than anyone.”
The “Soupe Barbue” was a hit— the rich sweetness of the chard and leeks set off by the acidity of the tomatoes. And it was healthy, too, Beard insisted, made with a minimum of olive oil.
He was allowing himself to eat dinner, despite the forbidden nature of certain items— Pathé would never know about the bites of pâté or smoked salmon, nor the glass of wine. Or two. Beard was nearing the end of his stay at the clinic anyway.
There was gossip, talk of mutual friends, of new restaurants in Paris, New York, and London. Beard’s old friend Joe Baum had been ousted from Restaurant Associates, the struggling New York company that ran the Four Seasons, Tavern on the Green, and many others. But Baum had just landed a plum consulting contract to create the restaurants at the World Trade Center towers, currently under construction. One of them would sit at the very top of one of the buildings and be the highest restaurant in the world.
Bedford and Lord realized they and Beard had a London friend in common: Elizabeth David, who’d recently sent Beard a letter from Italy:
I thought of you today while having lunch in a real Tuscan tavern in a place called Colle Val d’Elsa, such good, authentic food, and perfectly delicious roast pig, very delicately flavored with wild fennel and cooked perfectly— how you would have enjoyed it, and how rare this sort of food and this type of restaurant have become in Tuscany. It’s been disappointing this year. Indifferent wine everywhere and not very interesting food. But the countryside is divinely beautiful in October.
Was good, authentic food getting harder to find in France as well as Italy?
David certainly thought so, Beard reported, but then, she was a gloomy sort, her small London kitchen shop in perpetual semi- crisis, her writing slow and arduous. She was working on a bread book and making little progress, and referred to her just- released Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen as “a squalid little book.” From London, David wrote that chef Bill Lacy’s new restaurant (called Lacy’s) was getting great reviews: “I’m very pleased for Bill— but somehow I can’t bring myself to go and eat there. The food is just restaurant French food— or perhaps it’s improved by now— if only one could go to a French restaurant and get a cup of beautiful consommé followed by just one authentic dish not fussed up with a lot of extra vegetables— and above all not heated up. I wonder if I will ever get back to Lucullus in Avignon to eat that fish soup.”
Bedford shared her friend David’s attitude of dismissive hauteur toward banal “restaurant French food”— her term for what Richard Olney called “Grand Palace” and “international hotel cooking.” She was a purist, and yes, she felt the same way about consommé. She, too, adored Hiély Lucullus, with its Art Nouveau– style, second- floor dining room near the Place de l’Horloge. It had been there since the 1930s.
This they could all agree on: Hiély was a classic place. Un-changed and unchangeable, and with an admirable fish soup. M.F. had eaten there countless times over the years.
But today, Bedford now continued, there were too many restaurants serving reheated roasted meats wrapped in pastry, sauces thickened with corn starch, and various ridiculous flambés. It was theater, not cooking— it was, no offense, the Americanization of cooking.
They all laughed.
But Child was quick to retort: there was mediocre food all over. And in fact it seemed to her that even many of the great three-star French restaurants had been overly commercialized, made to run like mechanized assembly lines, at the expense of some of the craft and skill—“hand work,” she called it—in their kitchens. She strongly disagreed with The New York Times’s Craig Claiborne, who’d recently written that no American restaurant could touch France’s greatest. She’d been to all of those so-called “greatest” places—indeed, Paul had gotten food poisoning the last time they went to Le Grand Véfour in Paris.
“I have eaten every bit as well in New York,” she declared.
Reprinted from “PROVENCE, 1970.” Copyright (c) 2013 by LUKE BARR. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC.
For recipes mentioned above from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” click below:
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“Poulet Roti,” “Haricots verts a la Provencale,” and “Gratin Dauphinois” from MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, VOLUME 1 by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, copyright © 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.