“The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance” (Free Press), by Thomas McNamee: Many of us can no longer remember what life was like before arugula and balsamic vinegar became part of the larder, celebrity chefs strutted their stuff on TV and the term “foodie” made its way into common parlance.
But that was the state of the culinary scene little more than a half-century ago when the writer who was to become arguably the most influential restaurant critic of our time landed his dream job by being named food editor of The New York Times.
“What Craig Claiborne saw when he looked out across the vast expanse of the United States was a gastronomic landscape blighted by ignorance and apathy, a drearily insular domain of overdone roast beef and canned green beans,” Thomas McNamee writes in “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance,” his comprehensive biography of this towering figure whose public success masked a troubled life.
Claiborne reshaped the world of food criticism, taking it from advertiser-friendly puff pieces displayed on what were then known as the newspaper’s women’s page to a respected genre whose work reflected the same rigor and gravity as that of the Times’ drama, music and art critics. He guided a generation of readers from TV dinners, Reddi-wip and Cheez Whiz to classic French cuisine, Szechwan cooking from China and Mexican dishes that went beyond tacos and tortillas.
The author recounts Claiborne’s unhappy childhood in the Mississippi Delta, where he grew up in genteel poverty, was bullied by schoolmates and found refuge in the kitchen of his mother’s boarding house. After studying journalism in college, he joined the Navy during World War II and was introduced to exotic cuisine and gay sex during a stint in Casablanca.
Claiborne joined the Times after training in classic French cuisine and service at a prestigious hotel school in Switzerland and writing for Gourmet magazine. His prodigious output went beyond his newspaper columns and reviews, encompassing a string of best-selling cookbooks, many co-authored by longtime friend Pierre Franey.
Despite his success and many honors, Claiborne’s life appears to have brought only superficial joy. Forced by the strictures of the times to hide his homosexuality, he was often depressed and nagged by self-doubt. His alcohol consumption was mind-boggling, as he routinely downed a half-dozen margaritas or scotches, a bottle or two of wine and a few stingers or cognacs before, during and after dinner. It was a rare morning that didn’t include a hangover.
This first comprehensive account of Claiborne’s life transports readers to renowned restaurants, profiles innovative chefs and traces the revolution in dining that his writings did much to inspire.
The book is replete with anecdotes and memorable incidents, some of them monuments to breathtaking excess. There is the lavish party on the liner SS France to celebrate Claiborne’s 50th birthday, where guests included Salvador Dali and his pet ocelot; the closing of the legendary restaurant Le Pavillon in 1960 after the staff walked out amid a feud with its tyrannical boss, Henri Soule; and, of course, Claiborne’s $4,000 dinner for two in Paris, an outgrowth of a public television auction.
Students of social history and readers with an abiding interest in food will find much to savor in this book. But those whose palates aren’t attuned to the likes of foie gras and truffles may get their fill early on. De gustibus.