BOOK: In 1970, James Beard weighed more than 300 pounds. Desperate to reduce, he visited celebrity diet doctor Georges Pathé on the outskirts of Grasse near the southeast coast of France. The doctor prescribed the "Prudence Diet," which consisted of portions that looked microscopic to the rotund chef and food writer. While on the diet Beard was always hungry — a condition made worse by the fact he was not supposed to drink wine. But on a Sunday evening in December 1970, he and M.F.K. Fisher, plus two of her friends, went to dinner at the home of Julia and Paul Child. As recounted in Provence, 1970, an affectionate micro history by Luke Barr, Fisher's grandnephew, Beard arrived early and began poking around the kitchen with the hostess. When he spotted a large head of chard, he decided to make soup. "Child and Beard loved cooking together," Barr writes, "and had even given themselves a joint nickname a few years earlier: Gigi, a combination of their names (or at least the J's in their first names, as pronounced in French). 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." Beard sauteed leeks and garlic for his soup, and added tomatoes. Child gleefully named it "Soupe Barbue" — French for "Bearded Soup" (Beard-ed soup. Get it?) with "the rich sweetness of the chard and leeks set off by the acidity of the tomatoes," according to Barr. "And it was healthy, too, Beard insisted, made with a minimum of olive oil." Child, despite rotating the chicken multiple times in the oven so it would roast evenly, undercooked it. "You'd think that I'd know how to cook a chicken by now!" grumped the author of the recently published Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
WHY READ? Relying on his great-aunt's letters and a journal from 1970, Barr has produced a plausible reconstruction of a brief moment in 1970 when M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child and James Beard found themselves together in France. Child, who had just completed the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was already a TV celebrity in the United States; Beard was finishing his ambitious American Cookery; and Fisher, a prolific author, had established herself as the pre-eminent American food writer. In addition, Child's co-author, Simone Beck, was also there, along with their editor, Judith Jones, and so was the reclusive chef Richard Olney, who had just published The French Menu Cookbook. Calling such a convergence historic, as Barr does, may be a bit melodramatic, but it certainly was a coincidence, and Barr's account renders it less as history and more as a heartwarming story of friendship, conviviality, and the joys of sharing good food.
MAKE IT: James Beard never wrote down the recipe for his Soupe Barbue, but Barr provides enough clues to suggest a reasonable facsimile. Though the ingredients in the accompanying recipe probably varies somewhat from Beard's, it clearly provides "rich sweetness" that Barr mentioned, along with the health benefits Beard proclaimed.
Tom Valeo, Times correspondent
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches possible book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions, send an email to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.