By Thomas McNamee
Story by Mort Hochstein
It was a surprise to me when, recently, I mentioned Craig Claiborne to a knowledgeable friend and he did not recognize the name. In the sixties and seventies, Claiborne dominated the Manhattan food scene and had a nationwide and international influence as restaurant critic and food editor of the New York Times. Quiet and retiring, he was a powerhouse who wrote two dozen books and fathered restaurant criticism as we know it today.
In those years, I produced Claiborne’s appearances on the Today program and occasionally accompanied him when he reviewed restaurants. On one memorable occasion in the mid-sixties, I worked with him as he gave sushi its first major showcase on television. I thought I knew the man. How wrong I was.
A stunning new biography, The Man Who Changed The Way We Eat, portrays Claiborne’s contribution to gastronomy, in the palaces of haute cuisine and in the kitchens of cooks, great and humble. Author Thomas McNamee celebrates the mild mannered Southern gentleman who propelled the food revolution of the last century and we learn almost more than some might care to know about his troubled private life.
McNamee, who also gave us Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, traces Claiborne’s culinary career from his childhood in the kitchen of a renowned Mississippi Delta boarding house where his mother, Miss Kathleen, served the hush puppies and country ham of the region, but also offered sophisticated Creole cuisine which she had learned in New Orleans. He traces another food influence, Claiborne’s navy stint in World War Two, service under fire on the cruiser Augusta in the Mediterranean and eight months based in Morocco and Algeria where he discovered French bistro cooking along with the tagines and spices of North Africa.
After military service, Claiborne studied classical French cuisine and hospitality at the famed Swiss hotel school in Lausanne and returned to the States after two years to begin a campaign that would take him to the New York Times. He worked as a publicist—unhappily-, tended bar and was a receptionist at Gourmet, writing and editing without a byline. He also wrote freelance and his articles brought him in 1957 to the attention of the editor of the Times’ women’s pages, who took a chance on an unseasoned writer, but not before passing him on to Turner Catledge, her managing editor. Catledge, like Claiborne, had attended Mississippi State College and that, Claiborne noted in a memoir, helped clinch the deal.
But nothing happened accidentally with Claiborne. He knew that he’d have to interview with the tough, but folksy editor, and came in ready to play the ‘ol’ boy’ routine with Catledge. The two Mississippians palavered Delta fashion; reminiscing about school days down south and Claiborne was on the first step to inciting a food revolution.
Once on staff, Claiborne slogged his way through assignments, most not related to restaurant reviews. Cannily, when he did review restaurants, he invited senior editors and their wives to join him; on the company, of course. His goal was to make them court him and he dreamed up pleasurable assignments to make research enjoyable. He avoided restaurant reviews as much as possible because
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