Taking on the subject of another giant in the food world, McNamee (Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, 2008, etc.) traces the life of the fascinating and troubled man who transformed America’s bleak culinary landscape into the lush food environment of today.
In a media world jammed with TV shows featuring celebrity chefs, thousands of cookbooks, food blogs, specialty stores devoted to kitchen tools and ubiquitous online restaurant reviews, it is hard to perceive what passed for cuisine in 1950s America. Home cooking was belittled as drudgery, and the country lacked great cooking schools like those in Europe. Food criticism as a profession didn’t exist, and the new TV culture hailed frozen foods as the next great leap forward for homemakers. Craig Claiborne (1920–2000) grew up steeped in the succulent flavors of the Mississippi Delta, and he attended a leading hotel school in Switzerland, where he absorbed the techniques of classical French cooking and formal service. He became the food editor for the New York Times in 1957, beginning a reasoned critique of New York’s restaurant scene and the lackluster culture of American food. “Henceforward, and with steadily increasing force,” writes McNamee, “he would become America’s leading authority on food. A good review from Craig Claiborne would have a restaurant’s telephones ringing day and night; a bad one would silence them.” For the next 30 years, Claiborne was the emperor of food, writing hundreds of food columns and publishing more than 20 books. He explored exotic locations and their cuisines and introduced a rainbow of new ingredients and flavors to America’s kitchens. He also launched the careers of numerous culinary personalities, including Marcella Hazan and Diana Kennedy, and he elevated home cooking into a joyful experience. McNamee deftly explores the glittering public life and far-reaching contributions Claiborne made to America’s food culture, as well as his troubled personal life.
A highly readable, well-researched narrative chronicling America’s boring culinary past and the one man who altered its course forever.