Craig Claiborne’s name is not readily, if at all, familiar to foodies or anyone else these days. But he is one of the great godparents of today’s food world. In the late 1950’s he changed and molded our modern ideas and attitudes about food, eating, entertaining and dining out. He found his passion in food and wrote about it, and broke major barriers to do so. Prior to Claiborne’s position as food editor at The New York Times, articles about food, homey little recipes, and maybe a nod or two to a well-known restaurant were part of the “women’s section”, tucked in with society, fashion, and other innocuous subjects. And there was definitely nothing critical or judgmental in them. But this changed when Claiborne wrote very seriously about everything a restaurant had to offer--food, service, tableware, decor, atmosphere, and the quality of it all. And eventually he created a starred rating system.
He was well equipped to do the job, having passed the course at the Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association in Lausanne, Switzerland--a rigorous education that prepared future hotel managers to know every aspect of making a hotel visitor’s experience supremely wonderful. A three-year program with yearly courses in cuisine, service and management, and all three areas were mandatory. Some of the things a graduate would know about cuisine were how to make numerous types of cocktails and classical French dishes, having memorized hundreds of drinks, recipes and preparations of all kinds of food. And there were also service and management courses which were exacting and precise. The goal was to prepare future hotel staff to be able to supervise, train, judge and maintain the best staff possible in the best hotels in the world. Claiborne was eighth in his class.
The experience at the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association provided the focus for what had been a rather unclear vision of what he wanted to do with his life. Having grown up in the Mississippi Delta where his mother kept a boarding house, he was very familiar with the best in Southern cuisine which his mother served. He was a shy man, with a hidden life, a homosexual in a time when it was a criminal offense in many states and not socially accepted. He struggled with this and other demons all his life. His formative years could have been the basis for a Tennessee Williams play with an overbearing mother who had social pretensions and all set within a stratified rigid society. A degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and several years in the U.S. Navy during World War II sent him off on a different way of life.
As a food critic he dined anonymously, never took any sort of payment, did not promote any products, and his meals were paid by his employer, The New York Times. This would set the standard for future food critics. In the beginning he dined at high-end restaurants, with mostly French cuisine, but then he traveled within New York, visiting and tasting food in the ethnic areas of the city, and wrote about them. He also began the practice of rating restaurants with stars. All manner of food from street food to the most elegant restaurant food was of interest. He always justified why he liked or did not like something and urged his readers to venture forth to taste, to cook and delight in eating experiences that were outside their comfort zone.
In addition, Claiborne wrote numerous cookbooks, and promoted the work of the then-unknown in the food business. He wrote the first review of Julia Child’s book; became best cooking friends with Pierre Franey, and promoted Paul Bocuse, Paul Prudhomme, Jacques Pépin, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedy and others. But his life was not all success and joy, which McNamee points out. There was excessive drinking, a willful disregard for his own health, even when faced with strong indications that he was ill, and in his last years, irascible tendencies to provoke and distance those who had his best interests in mind.
McNamee does a fine job examining the man and his contributions to what all of us take for granted these days. Before Claiborne, for most Americans eating was a necessity and certainly not always a pleasure. Since his time, Americans are open to a world of food and think it is just great to take pleasure in eating and talking about it.