At the Table with Jimmy /

Jes­sica B. Har­ris re­mem­bers a sum­mer week in Provence, din­ing and drink­ing with James Bald­win

SAVEUR - - Contents - Pho­to­graph by RYAN PFLUGER

Re­mem­ber­ing James Bald­win in Provence

The sum­mer I vis­ited James Bald­win at his home in Provence he was work­ing al­most con­stantly, fine-tun­ing the man­u­script that would be­come If Beale Street Could Talk. Most of our ex­changes oc­curred around the table at lunch or din­ner. It was 1973, and I was a 25-year-old fledg­ling French pro­fes­sor, who just hap­pened to be dat­ing Bald­win’s best friend, a fel­low Queens Col­lege pro­fes­sor named Sam Floyd. Just af­ter our ar­rival we gath­ered pre­sciently around what Bald­win would later bap­tize as his “wel­come table,” an out­door din­ing table nes­tled un­der a grove of tow­er­ing cedars. He had just come up from a self-im­posed se­ques­tra­tion in his base­ment liv­ing quar­ters where he spent most of his days writ­ing.

I’d met Bald­win be­fore in New York City with Sam, and his face was a fa­mil­iar icon to any Black per­son of the pe­riod. I was in­vari­ably im­pressed by the kind­ness and the car­ing, the ab­so­lute se­ri­ous­ness backed by an elfin twin­kle, and the enor­mous hu­man­ity of his smile every time I saw him. I said my awestruck hellos and we sat down to a lunch pre­pared by his house­keeper and cook, Va­lerie Sordello. I re­call an oh-so-splen­did soupe au pis­tou that greeted us at the table. Dense with minced veg­eta­bles and heady with the pun­gent gar­lic that is the hall­mark of the re­gion’s cook­ing, it was the per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to Provence.

The south of France has long held a spe­cial place in the hearts of the French—and the world beyond—lur­ing writ­ers and artists, the fa­mous, the in­fa­mous, and the merely or­di­nary for centuries. As a re­sult, in the 1970s, Provence be­came the nexus of many sig­nif­i­cant culi­nary con­ver­sa­tions that con­tinue to res­onate with Amer­i­can eaters al­most half a cen­tury later. Richard Ol­ney, who would be­come the ed­i­tor-in-chief of the Time-life Good Cook se­ries later in the decade, set­tled alone in the hills above Toulon. Ju­lia Child, at the height of her ini­tial tele­vi­sion fame, en­ter­tained M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard at her home, La Pitchoune. To the east, Michel Guérard was re­work­ing la cui­sine clas­sique into the lighter, more del­i­cate cui­sine minceur, and to the south, near Cannes, Roger Vergé was open­ing Le Moulin de Mou­g­ins and pi­o­neer­ing la cui­sine du soleil, a trans­for­ma­tion of classic Provençal cook­ing. The culi­nary world was mak­ing a ma­jor shift that in­flu­ences us un­til this day, and James Bald­win was an un­likely ob­server.

The dap­pled sun­shine and warm weather of the south of France beck­oned Bald­win, who ar­rived there from Paris in

the early 1970s to roost in Saint-paulde-vence, one of the vil­lages perched pre­car­i­ously on the hill­tops above Nice. The days there were sim­ple, and mostly or­ga­nized around Bald­win’s writ­ing sched­ule. Bald­win en­joyed food, and his meal breaks from writ­ing al­lowed him to in­dulge his om­niv­o­rous ap­petite and knowl­edge­able, in­ter­na­tional palate. Some were taken at the local Café de la Place, where, if the gods had con­spired, a prix fixe lun­cheon spe­cial might be ac­com­pa­nied with a view of the boules pitch down on the town square, where a heated game might be go­ing on be­tween such no­ta­bles as tough-guy char­ac­ter ac­tor Lino Ven­tura and honey-voiced Yves Mon­tand, the un­of­fi­cial mayor of the town. Many nights, there was a li­ba­tion or two at La Colombe d’or; still helmed then by Paul Roux’s wife, Ti­tine, the leg­endary hostelry was the spot for spe­cial meals and prepran­dial drinks. Bald­win be­came a reg­u­lar on the bar’s low wooden stools that seemed bet­ter suited to milk­ing cows than sup­port­ing the back­sides of the rich and fa­mous.

One evening, af­ter drinks with Bald­win and his close friend Bernard Has­sell, a road trip was con­jured from the mists of Scotch and wine. We would visit the ac­claimed chef Ge­orges Garin and his wife, Mary, Bald­win’s good friends who had also lately aban­doned Paris. Re­cently re­tired from their two-miche­lin-starred Chez Garin, the duo packed up their things and their beloved Abyssinian cat, Tikété, and moved to Sol­liès-tou­cas, 65 miles south­west of Saint-paulde-vence. The walk back down the hill to Bald­win’s home con­cretized our plans, and it was de­cided that we would head out the fol­low­ing day: my­self, Sam, Bernard, and the man that I had learned to call Jimmy.

A car ap­peared in the morn­ing, a rather large Mercedes as I re­call, and we all loaded in, head­ing over hair­pin turns to­ward the sea. As the sun rose in the sky we wended our way west along the glit­ter­ing Azure Coast, past the fa­mil­iar towns of the French Riviera—an­tibes, Saint-tropez, Le La­van­dou, Hyères—be­fore, fi­nally, on the out­skirts of Toulon, head­ing up to Sol­liès-tou­cas. Cul­tur­ally, it was a dis­tance as well from the Ital­ian in­flu­ences of eastern Provence to the hills of Provence proper, the ab­so­lutely French place that has held the imag­i­na­tion of artists for gen­er­a­tions. In the car, con­ver­sa­tion cen­tered on noth­ing more dra­matic than the weather, the en­dur­ing friend­ship of Jimmy and Mary Garin, the woman to whom he’d ded­i­cated An­other Coun­try, and the an­tic­i­pa­tion of a su­perb meal pre­pared by Ge­orges.

In Sol­liès-tou­cas, Ge­orges Garin did what many chefs do in re­tire­ment—he opened an­other res­tau­rant. Le Lin­gousto was smaller, more ca­sual in feel than Chez Garin, but no less ex­act­ing in its menu of­fer­ings; the meal did not dis­ap­point. The new place was just the right blend of rus­tic Provençal and Parisian style, a lighter, sun­nier ver­sion of Chez Garin. Our aper­i­tifs for the evening were not the usual Provençal pastis, but rather for Jimmy, Sam, Bernard, and Mary, the Scotch that was de rigueur at all the gath­er­ings of this circle of friends. (I was quite happy with sev­eral glasses of the local Ban­dol.) The lun­cheon menu be­gan with the epony­mous lin­gousto, a Mediter­ranean lan­gous­tine grilled and served with an airy sauce about which all raved. I, un­for­tu­nately, had to take their word for it be­cause of a shell­fish al­lergy. We then pro­ceeded to a main of roasted lamb, done to a turn and ac­com­pa­nied by baby car­rots, zuc­chini, string beans, and one of the unc­tu­ous veg­etable purées that Ge­orges had pi­o­neered in Paris. The lamb was pink, fork-ten­der, and fla­vored with herbes de Provence, the sea­son­ing blend that in gas­tro­nomic synes­the­sia cap­tures all of the fra­grances of the re­gion, mixes them with sun­shine, and trans­forms them into a taste. A true Provençal mesclun fol­lowed, bril­liantly dressed with vine­gar, local olive oil, and (I imag­ined) a hint of the lamb jus. A cheese course ac­com­pa­nied by crusty baguettes show­cased south­ern spe­cial­ties—i re­call that there was a Ro­que­fort be­cause at an ear­lier meal at Ge­orges’ Paris place, he had taught me how to eat it as some French fam­i­lies do, by mash­ing but­ter into it be­fore slather­ing it on bread or a firm, ripe pear, thereby mak­ing it at once milder and richer. Dessert was sim­ple and sim­ply per­fect af­ter a lan­guorous lunch in the sun­shine: fresh pineap­ple. Ripe and sweet-tart, it sealed off the meal bril­liantly.

Con­ver­sa­tion that evening floated from the pro­found to the ba­nal. As of­ten hap­pens when old friends meet, its thread seemed to spool on­ward from some pre­vi­ous time. Friends were evoked, dis­cus­sions con­tin­ued, glasses re­filled, and all too soon the sun be­gan to sink. Re­plete with wine and warmed by the Provençal air and the balm of friend­ship, we piled into the car and headed back down the hills and along the coast to once again as­cend to Saint-paul-de-vence. Jes­sica B. Har­ris is a James Beard Award–win­ning au­thor and culi­nary his­to­rian. Her me­moir, My Soul Looks Back (Scrib­ner), was pub­lished in May.

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