Review of “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance” by Thomas McNamee; Free Press
In today's food-crazed age, New York City-based journalists hound construction workers for gossip on restaurants-in-progress. Struggling eateries are put on public deathwatch by local blogs. Swarms of young and hungry food writers tear through greenmarkets and food fairs in search of an undiscovered must-try bite -- be it a vegan caramel, killer fried anchovy or old-fashioned pimento cheese. Up-and-coming chefs compete on reality TV. How did we get here? Author Thomas McNamee, who also wrote “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse,” argues that Craig Claiborne got the ball rolling.
When Claiborne became food editor for the New York Times in 1957, he took over a section of simple recipes and entertaining tips targeted at high-end homemakers. Before his time, restaurant reviews were rare and "not permitted to be even slightly negative." He reshaped the section to include serious restaurant criticism and introduced readers to previously unknown cooking products (the salad spinner, the Cuisinart) and international flavors (Ethiopian fare, Marcella Hazan's Italian home cooking). In doing so, he helped make cuisine an essential part of American culture. He started the New York Times star-rating system and co-wrote more than 20 cookbooks. At a time when TV dinners reigned, he published insanely difficult recipes, which McNamee suggests may have been the first vestiges of food porn: "Cookbooks in later years, after all, would often be bought more as the stuff of fantasy than manuals for cooking."
In 1975, Claiborne and his friend and colleague, Chef Pierre Franey, made a famous -- or perhaps infamous -- trip to Chez Denis in Paris for a controversial $4,000 meal. The Times published Claiborne's descriptions of all 31 dishes (and accompanying wines), from the "fresh Beluga caviar in crystal enclosed in shaved ice," to the ortolans in brochette (tiny birds that are "as fat as butter" and eaten bones and all, "one bird to one bite"), to the "poires Alma" (that is, pears poached in port). Claiborne's review was published during a recession, when "New York City was on the verge of financial collapse," in McNamee's words. The decadence of the meal outraged hundreds of readers and delighted hundreds more. In polarizing his audience, Claiborne became food writing's first rock star.
Chock full of fun foodie facts, “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat” offers lots of fodder for dinner party small-talk. Readers learn the John and Jacqueline Kennedy hired the first White House chef -- and that cream of tomato soup with crushed popcorn was served at JFK's inauguration luncheon. Craig's birthday celebration on the S.S. France, a cruise ship known for its first-class dining room, gives readers a moment with Salvador Dali, who was on board with his pet ocelot, Babou. The dwarf leopard dined on haricots verts, minced chicken, steamed rice sprinkled with beef broth and powdered biscuits.
Craig Claiborne appears to us in tiny morsels, too. Unlike his friends Julia Child and Jaques Pepin, he had little interest in cooking on camera, which helps explain why his name and face are unfamiliar to many food aficionados today. We catch a glimpse of him in a New York magazine piece that Nora Ephron penned in 1968: "[Claiborne] speaks softly, wears half-glasses, and has a cherubic reddish face that resembles a Georgia peach." We learn that he refused to accept bribes from restaurants but befriended many chefs. However, McNamee does not discuss how those relationships may have affected his impartiality as a critic. We learn that he was gay before the word "gay" was in the vernacular. He threw elaborate dinner parties for his friends, and after a few drinks, he'd reenact the dance routine from "The Jet Song" in West Side Story. He drank heavily, is described as a mean drunk and was arrested for drunk driving. Was he generally a likable guy? It's unclear.
Many expository pages are devoted to Claiborne's strained relationship with his mother, but not much is said of his father until the mention of Claiborne's own memoir, which involved a blurred recollection of a sexual relationship with his father. McNamee doesn't buy it. He suggests that "this memory was more nightmare than fact." He goes on to say, "It should also be remembered that Craig loved to shock people… Most of the time he was the composed and courtly gentleman, perfectly dressed and groomed, almost prim in manner, then suddenly he'd be grabbing some poor dinner guest by the balls and cackling like a maniac." One doesn't need a degree in psychology to know that a history of sexual abuse could help to explain Claiborne's inappropriate and erratic behavior, but in the end, it's hard to say whether anyone really knew him.
While Claiborne did indeed change the way America eats, he didn't necessarily do it on purpose. When he published the 1961 "New York Times Cookbook," which sold three million copies and counting, he said, "I firmly believed that at the end of five years it would disappear from bookshelves, and thus go into oblivion." It's impossible to say whether his words were colored by modesty or honesty. “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat” may not be the story of a visionary, but it's certainly the tale of a food-lover whose passion caught on.