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The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat:
Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance
by Thomas McNamee

(Free Press, 339 pages)

Book CoverWithin the historical context of food and dining, mention the name Julia Child and most people will offer a nod of recognition; perhaps even James Beard will ring a few bells. Mention the name Craig Claiborne, on the other hand, and a great majority – unless they happen to be dyed-in-the-wool foodies – will undoubtedly respond with a blank stare. Who???

People tend to remember James Beard because of the foundation that keeps his name in the public eye… and Julia Child lives on in old TV reruns, several recent books, and Meryl Streep’s remarkable big screen persona. And yet, Craig Claiborne, a mere twelve years after his passing (Mr. Claiborne died in 2000) – an absolute giant in the modern food world – is largely forgotten.

In his time, he was certainly the equal of the aforementioned Ms. Child and Mr. Beard. They may have been more popular… but no one yielded more power in the culinary world than did Craig Claiborne. And, he was, quite literally, as biographer Thomas McNamee notes, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat.

From 1957 to 1988, with several interesting lacunae, Mr. Claiborne was the food editor and restaurant critic at the New York Times… Positions which he created. Heretofore there had never been such a thing as food criticism; newspaper articles about restaurants were basically advertisement. Food articles relied on readers’ recipes and corporate press releases. Craig Claiborne changed all that… and, along the way, became the most powerful voice the modern American food world had ever known.

When Mr. Claiborne began his long tenure, as the author points out, corruption was the norm. Even in major newspapers, the opening of a new restaurant called for a “review,” which was not permitted to be even slightly negative. The reviewer’s meals were free and lavish. And the papers’ various powers-that-be, and their families, as well as the reviewer, would undoubtedly continue to dine gratis as long as the restaurant continued to spend advertising dollars.

The Times, however, as Mr. McNamee notes, maintained – and still maintains – an impenetrable wall between its advertising and editorial departments. And in his reviewing, Mr. Claiborne observed a policy that has become absolutely sine qua non for all reputable restaurant criticism: He dined anonymously and the paper picked up the tab. He also devised a system for rating restaurants (based upon three and eventually four stars), which continues to serve as the basic model, with various and sundry adaptations, for contemporary restaurant evaluation.

Mr. Claiborne’s literary output was prodigious. In addition to his reviews and articles published in the Times, he also authored or co-authored 26 cookbooks, including the famous New York Times Cook Book of 1961 and several other classic culinary tomes. And the list of food-related authors he helped discover – including Julia Child herself – is nothing short of phenomenal.

His extraordinary accomplishments notwithstanding, he was an unusually complex and enigmatic personality, a man who never managed to come to grips with his personal demons. His mood changes could be mercurial; his bouts of depression (despite a succession of therapists) debilitating. He had become the undisputed king in a kingdom he himself had created; he should have been euphorically content in his incredible accomplishments… but he was not.

Craig ClaiborneAs Frank Bruni, a former New York Times restaurant reviewer and current editorialist so astutely noted after reading an advance copy Craig Claiborne’s biography: “His story, with lessons that transcend the kitchen or brasserie, proves anew that reaching the summit doesn’t meaning enjoying the view… His tale is a sad reminder: happiness has less to do with achievement than with perspective. And sometimes the person inside a life, storied or otherwise, is least able to savor it.”

Raised in a boardinghouse in the Mississippi Delta, he was never able to resolve the love/hate relationship with his mother, eventually severing all ties, refusing even to attend her funeral. Usually prim, proper, and decidedly shy, he could turn erratically rude & crude; and, in later years, quite vicious, managing to alienate nearly all of even his closest friends.

Without doubt, the greatest contributor to his personal & profession ennui, his self-loathing, his estrangement from friends & acquaintances, and the plethoric variety of health issues that plagued his final years was alcoholism, a demon with which he struggled most of his adult life. His binges became legendary… as did his accompanying erratic behavior.

Despite his complex personal problems and tragic persona, however, his accomplishments – and they are legion – clearly speak for themselves. To paraphrase Mr. McNamee: Craig Claiborne succeeded in elevating food, cooking and dining to a level of significance he believed they should occupy in American life. He changed the way Americans ate, the way they thought about food, the way they lived.

A must read for all foodies.

August 2012
The Artful Diner

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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