Simone Beck, the author of captivating and definitive books about French cooking, died at noon last Friday at her 300-year-old farmhouse near Cannes, France. She was 87.
Beck was known simply as “Simca” to her readers, her friends and family. Her husband, Jean Victor Fischbacher, gave her the pet name that became her trademark.
Born in Normandy in 1904, in the village of Rainfreville not far from Dieppe, Simca was one of three children of Maurice Joseph Beck and Madeleine Maria Gabrielle Le Grand. Her father was an Anglophile and engaged a British nanny who taught his children English before they learned French. Later in her life, Simca’s bold command of English helped cement her kinship with America.
Although born into a privileged family, Simca was raised on the stern values of the era, which taught her great discipline as well as valor. During World War II, when her husband Jean was in an officer’s detention camp in Germany, Simca blazed along the back roads of Normandy on her bicycle laden with bottles of bootleg Benedictine liqueur from her grandfather Le Grand’s Benedictine factory. Using the bottles as barter, Simca collected bits of food--which she bundled up and mailed off to Jean every week. During five years of captivity he received every package but one.
After the War Simca and Jean settled comfortably in the shady Paris suburb of Neuilly. In 1949, one of the great encounters in culinary history took place when Simca met a Pasadena-born American woman named Julia Child at a party in the Bois de Boulogne. The two women rapidly forged a deep bond, becoming like sisters, and began work on a book that would teach Americans how to make authentic-tasting French food in American kitchens using American ingredients. Ten years later, in 1961, Simca and Julia (along with a third co-author Louisette Bertholle) published what would be the first volume of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Still in print after 30 years, it has acquired the lustre of legend because it is more than just a cookbook. It is also a record of a way of life that was sweet in France.
In 1970 Simca and Julia published their second book together, “Volume Two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Over the next 20 years Simca published three more books of her own, volumes that conveyed a warmer, more personal side of a great French cook. They were “Simca’s Cuisine,” published in 1972; “New Menus from Simca’s Cuisine,” published in 1979; and most recently “Food and Friends; A Memoir with Recipes,” published in October of this year.
In 1974 Simca left Paris for Provence. Drawn by the flavors and the serenity of the south, Simca continued cooking, teaching, and being an inspiration to Americans seeking the true sources and art of French cooking. When her husband died in 1986, Simca began a gradual process of retirement, working only to complete the manuscript of her last book.
With Simca when she died on her peaceful hillside were her devoted cook of 10 years Marie-Therese Christy and her beloved companion and dog Urus. She is survived by her brother, Bernard Beck, and numerous nieces and nephews.
Simone Beck will be buried next to Jean Fischbacher in Rainfreville next week.