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A tiny Frenchwoman has had a huge impact on food in America

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On Dec. 11, a tiny electric spark of a woman named Lucie Peyraud — Lulu to all who know her — gathered four generations of family around her in a Provencal farmhouse and celebrated her 100th birthday.

I'm going to come back to her in a minute, but it's worth noting for now that the event was largely lost amid American headlines about an Alabama Senate race and California wildfires.

Lulu is not the woman most of us think of when we think about how French food came to America.

For that, there is an official story: In 1948, Julia Child crossed the channel, ate sole meunière, fell spang in love with France, wrote it all down for us, and, in a fluting alto and pearls, bestrode the Atlantic to carry the glories of French cuisine to our shores, invented the celebrity chef and became America's greatest culinary figure.

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It's an epic hero's journey, and it is impossible not to love the whooping, hulking, unrepressed and forgiving spirit Child introduced to the American kitchen.

But I want to tell a different story.

In this one, a gay artist from Iowa named Richard Olney moves to Paris in 1951 to paint, but fails, in the end, to elude his true calling. He eventually settles on a scrubby, herb-scented hillside in Provence, digs a wine cave by hand out of solid rock, builds a traditional brick cooking hearth in his kitchen, lives in bohemian solitude regularly broken by sumptuous entertaining on a stone terrace under a grape arbor, and accumulates perhaps the most complete and dexterous body of knowledge about French cooking and French wine of any American of the 20th century.

He, too, brings French cuisine back to America, by the quiet means of several classic cookbooks: poetic, soulful and steeped in an almost devotional practice.

The two knew each other and, by most accounts, were polite in a stiff, courtly sort of way, although an unmistakable frost hung in the air between them.

And here's where I suppose I need to tread carefully. Because I'm backing one of these two horses, and it's not the more popular one.

But the Julia Child phenomenon appears to me, in retrospect, to be an examination of French cuisine as a way of cooking — tied to the historical moment of a 1960s backlash against the crushing soullessness of 1950s corporate convenience food. Whereas Olney's project strikes me as an inquiry into French cuisine as a way of living. Child, at the risk of oversimplification, wished to teach us how to make dishes, precisely and reproducibly. And Olney wished to teach us how cooking could be a path to well-being, a blessed pagan state of sensual, aesthetic and intellectual fulfillment.

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Among Child's legacies are Bobby Flay, Food Network, the celebritization of chefs generally and a vast monetization of televised cooking. Among Olney's are Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, winemaker and merchant Kermit Lynch and Thomas Keller's kitchen garden in Yountville.

Her influence dwarfs his by orders of magnitude. But my allegiance lies with him, and I suspect his legacy, because his ends were more satisfying and more universal, may be the more lasting.

Which brings me back to a blue-shuttered hilltop farmhouse, in a small, rocky subregion of Mediterranean France, where stout Mourvèdre vines lean their noses into sea air, where a revered Bandol wine called Domaine Tempier is made, and where Lulu Peyraud — 4½ feet tall, part coquette, part grand dame, part force of nature — has lived for more than 75 years.

A pilgrimage to Provence, where Lulu lives

It's an unlikely part of the world to serve as the nexus for an important strain of American food culture, and yet the Peyraud family house has been a crossroads for a group of Americans, mostly disciples or admirers of Olney — including Lynch, chefs Paul Bertolli and Jeremiah Tower, writer Jim Harrison and maybe most importantly, Waters — who have fallen in love with Lulu; made pilgrimages to see her each year; and translated her particular brand of cooking as an expression of place, her ancestral, old-world conviviality and her knack for gracious living into a notable and identifiable American attitude about food and wine.

Olney spent a lot of time in this house, cooking with Lulu, whose mastery as an instinctive and encyclopedic home cook eventually led him to write an entire book about her: "Lulu's Provençal Table."

In fact, if an evolution can be detected in Olney's writing, it is an evolution from the incredibly complex and formal menus of his first book, "The French Menu Cookbook," to the sparer elegance of "Simple French Food," to the earthy, briny, peasant frankness of "Lulu's." And if Waters saw Olney as a fairly comprehensive mentor and culinary hero, still, by her own account, the aspect of his philosophy that she most imitated in her own life was the part of Olney that was most like Lulu. The extravagance of his generosity, the care he took to create memorable moments, the way he used food as a means of communication, these were all much closer to the spirit of Chez Panisse than his relentless perfectionism and savant-like depth of knowledge. It was under the spell of Lulu's kind of Provence that Waters named Chez Panisse after a Pagnol character who might have been Lulu's neighbor.

And then, in a way no one could have predicted, Chez Panisse found itself dictating the terms of a revolution that would evolve into the farm-to-table movement but began as something called California Cuisine — maybe the most successful and sustainable reimagining of American food to have occurred in most of our lifetimes.

I'm on the phone with Waters a couple of weeks before Lulu's 100th birthday.

She is sitting in her kitchen in Berkeley, where a wood fire burns in a hearth that is directly inspired by Lulu's legendary, wall-width, brick kitchen fireplace, and she happens to be paging through a copy of "Lulu's Provençal Table," which she has just called "one of the great cookbooks ever — a holy book for me."

Waters has a rich life full of close, creative and occasionally famous friends and family. But there is only one portrait on her kitchen window sill.

It is a photo of Lulu.

As we talk, Waters keeps interrupting herself to call out one perfect recipe after another, each a collaboration between her beloved mentor and their mutually beloved friend.

"Oh! Duck with olives," she says, and I hear her turn a few pages.

"Squab with peas. Always that little perfect snap of taste. This tarte of mixed greens," she says, and lapses into silence.

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She goes on to describe how Lulu always remembers to serve Waters's favorite tea when she visits. How Lulu snips a single rose from the garden. How she sets the table with linen that Waters gave her for her 50th wedding anniversary.

Later, I will ask Lynch — the importer responsible for turning Domaine Tempier into an icon almost as American as French — whether he has a favorite Lulu story. I'm expecting something funny, or a little saucy, given her larger-than-life reputation. But all he can think of is her kindness. In the end, after a long pause, he tells me that he spent much of his life feeling like a guy without a family. And then he met Lulu and her husband, Lucien, and suddenly he had a family.

I experienced this myself when I first met Lulu, for a lunch at Olney's former house in Provence, and she looked up at me and repeated, "Steve?" I said yes, Steve, and leaned way, way down to peck her on left cheek and then right cheek, and she held my face for a second and said, "I'm so glad to finally meet you," as if this minor satellite in front of her, whose proper orbit was in a distant and mostly unimportant galaxy, were somehow a major planet in her personal solar system.

"If I were to ask you why Americans should know about Lulu Peyraud right now," I ask Waters, "what answer would come to mind?"

"Eating at the table," she says, without hesitation.

Which was not the answer I expected at all. But it was an answer that brought me full circle, to Julia Child, and Food Network, and my tiresome and old-fashioned beef with the current state of American food as marketable fashion.

In a recent list of the 30 most influential people in food, 20 of them were TV figures or social media celebrities.

In theory, what all of those TV shows and Instagram feeds and YouTube channels and Facebook groups are supposedly about is giving people the skills they need to pleasurably feed the people they love.

But we got stuck somewhere along the path back to our tables. Stuck, to some extent, in our living rooms, where no cooking is ever done, except by those on the screens we look up at, or down at, and where we don't talk, so much as occasionally interact.

And, for all her lovability and goodwill, it was Child who first invited us out of our kitchens, to sit still and watch her cook.

Lulu, on the other hand, has always found her way back to the table. Has never stopped cooking. Never given up talking for watching. Never confused celebrity for importance, or audience for company. On her 100th birthday, I'm arguing, Americans might do well to reassess our culinary heroes. To think of ourselves a little less as Julia's pupils, and a little more as Lulu's children.

Hoffman is a Minnesota writer and tax preparer, and an occasional French villager.

More from Food:

Book review: "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child"

How do you keep Julia Child's legacy alive? Pay it forward.

A pilgrimage to Provence, where Lulu lives

Food for Thought: A conversation with Alice Waters and José Andrés

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