Craig Claiborne, an icon of his day and an avatar of ours, seems overshadowed by James Beard and Julia Child nowadays, and Thomas McNamee’s biography The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance gives us several reasons why. Though described by Betty Fussell as more “accessible” than the ostensibly warmer, certainly more vivacious Child and jolly old Beard, McNamee fails to present the enigmatic, complex Claiborne as anything less than a remote Olympian figure.
When it boils down to it, 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 biography is a richly balanced (and long-awaited) feast for those wanting to know more (but not too much) about Craig Claiborne, whose life does not bear well under scrutiny.
I wouldn’t expect a biopic or a Netflix series any time soon.