Founding Father

Craig Claiborne gets his due in a first-time biography.

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In lower Manhattan, inside what was once known as the French Culinary Institute,  a bronze plaque in the shape of dinner plate reads, “Craig Claiborne MMIV.”

The year 2004 was when the plaque was installed, but it had been four years since Claiborne’s ashes were scattered off the coast of Long Island.

So, no: There’s no tombstone for Craig Claiborne, the man agreed to be the father of contemporary restaurant criticism. There is a monument, however, but in the words of biographer Thomas McNamee, that monument is impossible to see, because it’s too big to see.

“It is the gastronomic landscape [Claiborne] looked out across in the middle of the twentieth century and believed he might transform, and did transform,” McNamee writes in the first-ever biography of the man, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance (Free Press/Simon & Schuster). To transform that landscape, though, Craig Claiborne first had to get there — to America’s gastronomic capital, which was New York City — and out of there, which was Indianola, the Mississippi town where Claiborne grew up.

His father was a businessman. His mother ran a boarding house. And if there was never enough money to suit Kathleen Claiborne’s aristocratic pretensions, there was nonetheless fine food on her table — wonderful food (oysters Rockefeller, red snapper en papillote, shrimp remoulade) the memory of which stayed with her son a lifetime. But it took a number of false starts for Claiborne to capitalize on the example set inside that boarding-house dining room.

It took a disastrous year and a half in college at Mississippi State, where the rowdy behavior of Claiborne’s fraternity brothers rattled the nerves of a sensitive young man from the Delta. His life took a better turn when Claiborne transferred to the University of Missouri to study journalism. Then he entered the U.S. Navy during World War II, worked at a public relations job in Chicago, and returned to the Navy during the Korean War.

But a true pivotal moment came when Claiborne enrolled at the Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association in Lausanne. The exacting standards of service taught there suited his attention to detail and taste for high style. Those same standards applied to the preparation of traditional haute cuisine suited him too. And so did the position of food editor at The New York Times, a goal Claiborne set for himself and through timing, talent, and determination reached at a remarkably early stage of his writing career.

In the late 1950s, Claiborne had his work cut out for him, because he made it his job to chart new territory in a landscape of overpriced, overrated New York restaurants, overdone roast beef and canned green beans on home tables, and superficial reporting that passed for restaurant criticism. And so, in 1959, as McNamee writes, “the gloves came off.”

Craig Claiborne penned an article titled “Elegance of Cuisine Is on Wane in U.S.” And if that headline today doesn’t have the ring of front-page news, the Times at the time thought it did. Claiborne’s target: the big reputation but often lazy performance of New York’s priciest restaurants. The target audience for Claiborne’s opinionated but enlightening prose: restaurant-goers and adventurous home cooks.

Thomas McNamee and his wife — high school sweethearts in Memphis newly arrived in New York after college and both with a passion for food — were among those serious restaurant-goers and equally committed home cooks in the early 1970s, by which time Claiborne had cemented his reputation and influence.

He’d introduced arugula, creme fraiche, the Cuisinart, and the salad spinner to home kitchens. He’d authored the hugely successful The New York Times Cook Book. And he’d been an early champion of global cuisine and America’s regional cooking. He also helped introduce chefs such as Paul Prudhomme, Wolfgang Puck, and Jacques Pepin to a wide audience, and, working with his close friend and chef Pierre Franey, Claiborne had outfitted his own kitchen with professional appliances unheard of at the time in a domestic setting. But even as he railed against “immoderate” portions on restaurant plates, Claiborne’s alcohol consumption (in addition to a steady diet of butter, truffles, and foie gras) could be, according to McNamee, “stupefying.”

The artist Ed Giobbi and his wife, Elinor (who grew up in Memphis), saw the toll that Claiborne’s drinking was taking on him and on his friends. But the Giobbis stuck by him, faithful to the end. (It was Giobbi who designed that plaque at the French Culinary Institute.) And they both serve as valuable informants in the pages of The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat.

What Ed and Elinor Giobbi cannot entirely explain is Craig Claiborne the man: a man whose private life was his and his alone; a man who could suddenly turn on a friend and just as suddenly restore that friendship with a kind gesture; a man who claimed in his memoir of sexual goings-on between father and son; and a man who wrote that his mother’s “all-embracing, smothering love” “served as a giant-sized umbilical cord wrapped . . . noose-like around my neck.”

 McNamee, the biographer of another American food icon (in Alice Waters and Chez Panisse), said in a recent phone conversation that the idea of a book on Craig Claiborne was not high on his list of writing projects. An invitation to attend a symposium on Claiborne, however, changed his mind.

“I was mesmerized by the complexity of the person,” McNamee said. “Up to that point, I’d thought his was too simple a story, a term paper of some sort — do the research, tell the story. That would be the book: the ‘father’ of American food, yada yada yada. It didn’t seem like that much of a challenge.

“But when I went to that symposium and people started talking about Claiborne, I thought a biography would be an amazingly challenging task because of his complexity and contradictions as a person. That’s what hooked me.

“Not only was Claiborne shooting for the top when he began his career. He was shooting for the top of a field that didn’t exist! He had to build the mountain he was going to climb.”

Watch as Craig Claiborne makes that climb in Thomas McNamee’s well-researched, very readable, and sometimes dishy The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat. 


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