Craig Claiborne seems overshadowed by James Beard and Julia Child, but Thomas McNamee’s biography The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance might change that.
Then again, it might not; though described by Betty Fussell as more “accessible” than the ostensibly warmer Child, McNamee initially seems to struggle against presenting the enigmatic complex Claiborne as anything less than a remote Olympian figure. When it boils down to it, though, Claiborne might best be described as the right man in the right place at the right time. His hiring as the first male food editor of a major newspaper came about as the result of crass opportunism if not (as is hinted) chicanery, but The New York Times provided Craig Claiborne with the preeminent platform to fulfill his mission, which McNamee describes as nothing less than “advancing the nation’s culinary culture”.
Claiborne’s call for reform (off the bat McNamee cites an April, 1959 column “Elegance of Cuisine is on the Wane in U.S.” as his gauntlet) came at a time when the nation was ripe for unabashedly elitist change; within a year, Jackie Kennedy, designer clothing and a French chef were in the White House. McNamee explains how Claiborne, with lavish finesse and training he received in Switzerland, set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. This biography confirms his pervasive influence on food and dining and easily dismisses his only serious detractors, back-benchers John and Karen Hess, as resentful nit-pickers.
By the mid-Sixties Claiborne had became America’s unquestioned authority (his columns went directly to print; no editor) on the full culinary spectrum of foods and restaurants, chefs and cookbooks. He wrote and co-wrote many best-sellers, first and foremost The New York Times Cookbook. He discovered and promoted chefs as cultural and media personalities – Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme among many others – helped publicize the West Coast/James Beard movement and introduced Americans to nouvelle cuisine. Claiborne also reveled in a “pan-global eclecticism”, promoting the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the war), among others. He also lived to celebrate a resurgence of great American home cooking. His influence extended into the Reagan administration, and his legacy is evident today in the treatment of food as an important media subject. He created food journalism, and his sheer adventurism still informs our attitude towards food and cooking.
Though a bit exaggerated – McDonald’s Ray Kroc and other fast-food titans have influenced America’s diet far more than Claiborne –The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat should assign Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography to a well-deserved obscurity. McNamee’s solidly researched and beautifully presented biography is a richly balanced and long-awaited feast for those wanting to know more (but not too much) about Craig Claiborne, an icon of his day and an avatar of ours, but I wouldn’t expect a biopic any time soon.
On March 3, 1966, a supercell thunderstorm developed over central Mississippi and produced a large tornado around 4:00 pm CST near the old Adams community in Hinds County, several miles south-southwest of Raymond.
Tracking generally to the northeast, the tornado moved through mostly rural areas, though several barns and a few homes were heavily damaged. Around 4:30 pm CST, the storm struck the southern limits of Jackson as an F4 or F5 tornado and leveled the Candlestick Park shopping center, which gave the tornado its name; cinder-blocks from the structure were scattered for long distances, a number of homes and businesses were destroyed, eyewitnesses reported pavement scouring and a few cars were tossed upwards of 0.5 mi (0.80 km). A brick church was destroyed with such force that it seemingly exploded. Once the storm moved through Jackson, it crossed the Pearl River and entered Rankin County, maintaining a nearly straight northeastward track through the county.
The tornado reached its maximum strength of F5 near the Leesburg community; multiple homes were swept away, large swaths of trees were leveled, pavement was scoured, and chicken houses were obliterated. In Neshoba County the storm began to weaken though not considerably as about a dozen more homes were destroyed before the system crossed into Alabama. The tornado finally dissipated near the city of Tuscaloosa around 7:45 p.m. CST. During the storm’s three-hour-and-forty-five-minute existence, it traveled roughly 202.5 mi (325.9 km), one of the longest paths ever recorded. Overall, the tornado ranks as the second-deadliest in the state’s history, killing 57.
The Candlestick tornado touched down in what was in 1966 rural Rankin County, which like the area around Cooper Road is more heavily populated today. The tornado crossed Highway 25 (Lakeland Drive), and homes and businesses in the area around River Oaks, the north side of Jackson International Airport, Laurel Wood and Castlewoods lie in or very near where the tornado passed. The storm was also going through the Jackson metropolitan area between 430 pm and 5 pm, during the afternoon rush hour. In 1966, the interstate system was in the process of being constructed, but today the tornado would have been moving near the Stack just south of downtown Jackson where Interstates 20 and 55 converge. The tornado would have also been passing near or through the heavily trafficked areas along Highway 80, Flowood Drive and Lakeland Drive in Flowood.
The tornado’s story is told by Lorian Hemingway in her book, A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever (Simon & Schuster; July, 2003). Hemingway, the granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway (the daughter of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, who left his wife and eight children when Lorian, the youngest, was 6 years old), moved to Jackson with her mother and stepfather into a house fifty yards north of Candlestick Shopping Center some years before the storm and moved to Nashville a month before the tornado hit, but in an interview after the book’s publication said the tornado, “… wouldn’t let me alone. I was haunted by it. I’ve been haunted by it all my life; I’ve been haunted by it in dreams. Each time I would go back to Mississippi — and I did not go back until I was well into my adult life — just by happenstance, just sitting around and hearing people talk, that tornado would come up. Not through any provocation of mine. I was amazed to see how much it had lived on and how much it had impacted people and become a part of their history.”
Hemingway’s book takes us back to Jackson with interviews of friends and neighbors. Included are the stories of Ronny Hannis, who was severely injured but helped dig survivors from the rubble, and Donna Durr, who was sitting in her Volkswagen with her child and was carried away in the air, only to be gently set down in a field. As you might expect, there are plenty of people who talk of God and their belief that there was a plan to nature’s savagery. Hemingway, who shares her contrary thoughts with the reader, brings a sophisticated yet sympathetic tone to the conversations, never passing judgment. In fact, she seems desperate to reconnect with the people who made Jackson seem like home for her. Her style is radically different from that of her grandfather’s; the story is told in fully-rounded sentences often brimming with emotion, and the descriptions of the area around Caney Creek along Cooper Road seem pastoral.
She tells the story first in her own words then in the words of the survivors. Weaving nostalgia for the world of her childhood with apocalyptic images of that world “rolled onto a spear, of the sky punctured at its heart,” Hemingway draws the reader into the nightmare, describing the moments preceding the tornado and the instant when everything was turned upside down. Hemingway describes how a familiar setting is suddenly turned into a morass of shattered concrete, twisted metal, splintered glass, mangled cars and broken bodies and how everyone walks and speaks “with reverence because what is heaving and bending at jagged turns all around them is a burial ground they must undo.” Even after Candlestick Shopping Center was rebuilt, local residents stayed away. They couldn’t bear to remember.
For a long time I was remiss about not getting recipes from someone when our lives were shared, particularly those relatives we all have who were known for making a dish that everyone remembers, most often for a pie, cake or cookie, but canning recipes ran a close second, particularly pickles, then there were sauces such as barbecue and Jezebel followed by casseroles, stews and breads.
I once felt as if those recipes were irreplaceable riches that had been swallowed by the maw of time, but that feeling has passed; now I’ve come to realize that this remarkable world does indeed go around, and those cooks who will be remembered are here with me now. If fact, we should all realize that getting recipes from others is important, perhaps even crucial in some larger scheme of things, and we must have them even if we have to beat the holy hell out of someone to do it.
It’s our duty as members of the human race.
Toss well-cooked chick peas with chopped fresh tomatoes, white onions, cucumbers and peppers in a sharp (acidic) vinaigrette. Marinate for at least an hour (overnight is better) and serve over a bed of chopped greens with a good crusty bread. This salad goes particularly well with a heavy pasta dish such as lasagna, cannelloni or an Alfredo.
By 1986 publishing was already wedded to celebrity so much so that the best-selling cookbook that year was by “The Frugal Gourmet”, an ordained minister who was convicted of molesting teenage boys some years later. But Smith, for all his faults, was an international media presence, while Ernest Matthew Mickler (God rest his sweet soul) who in the same year published White Trash Cooking, was a dying man with a vision.
Ernie insisted on the title, which left him an open target since his simultaneously unblinking and winking approach to the stereotype of the rural South confounded people across the country as well as people on the Redneck Riviera. The only thing even remotely resembling a precedent for White Trash Cooking was written by another Floridian, Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies in anthropology brought her back home, much as it did Mickler, who threw down a gauntlet, insisting that while the nation might profile Southerners as a whole as white trash, the behaviors that earmark anyone anywhere as decent, perhaps in cases even honorable, hold sway in the American South as well, a region that is no more tragic than any other section of the country. He also knew that people outside of the South consider us low and mean, but we are (as they are) a layered society undeserving of their unilateral condemnation; our culture, our manners, our morals all have as much a measure of civilized imprint as those of our fellow countrymen, but instead of embracing our differences, they persist in considering the South and its people worthy of their collective opprobrium.
With White Trash Cooking, Mickler opened a portal of discovery into the essential character not only of the South, but of the nation; white trash cooking uses cheap ingredients, commercially frozen, dried or canned, few seasonings, packaged mixes, plenty of salt and sugar, lard and margarine in dishes that are quick and easy to cook, unsullied by any degree of sophistication. It remains the most basic form of cooking in the nation, the cooking of people who don’t read Bon Appetit, people who work a forty-hour week (or more) at a poorly-paying job with little or no insurance, living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make a life for themselves and their children. They wouldn’t go to a Whole Foods store unless they lived next door and had to, which is good advice for anybody without an attitude. White Trash Cooking celebrates a significant surface of our many-faceted country, one we should all recognize as uniquely ours and none others. Love it.