The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissanceby Thomas McNamee
“A big juicy dish bubbling with scandals and rivalries, thickened with oft-told secrets, chock full of random bits as if a boxful of mementos had been upended into the stew. Dig in, and it is likely to persuade you that this Clark Kent of a food editor really did exert superpowers on the cultural life of twentieth-century America” (The Washington
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“A big juicy dish bubbling with scandals and rivalries, thickened with oft-told secrets, chock full of random bits as if a boxful of mementos had been upended into the stew. Dig in, and it is likely to persuade you that this Clark Kent of a food editor really did exert superpowers on the cultural life of twentieth-century America” (The Washington Post).
In 1957, America was a gastronomic wasteland. One man changed all that.
From his perch at the New York Times, Craig Claiborne led America’s food revolution. He took readers where they had never been before, and brought Julia Child and Jacques Pépin to national acclaim. He introduced us to the foods and tools we take for granted today, from crème fraîche and balsamic vinegar to arugula and the salad spinner. And he turned dinner into an event—dining out, delighting your friends, or simply cooking for your family.
But the passionate gastronome led a conflicted personal life. Forced to mask his sexuality, he was imprisoned in solitude and searched for stable and lasting love. In The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat, acclaimed biographer Thomas McNamee unfolds a new history of American gastronomy and reveals in full a great man who until now has never been truly known.
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The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat
Putting a piece about food on the front page of the New York Times was unheard of, but on April 13, 1959, they did it.
ELEGANCE OF CUISINE IS ON WANE IN U.S.
Two time-honored symbols of the good life—great cuisine in the French tradition and elegant table service—are passing from the American scene. . . . Cost control cramps the enthusiasm and inventiveness of master chefs. . . . Training facilities for cooks and waiters are virtually nonexistent. Management and union officials are apathetic. . . . Menus soon will be as stereotyped as those of a hamburger haven. . . . Americans seem always to be in a hurry. . . .
Humbert Gatti, executive chef of the Plaza Hotel, predicts: “Within five years kitchens à la minute will replace haute cuisine in America’s major cities. The public will be offered broiled steak, broiled chicken or broiled fish. Or only sautéed dishes. No more sauce Champagne. No more sauce Robert, no more filet of beef Wellington. Even today, you walk into kitchens that don’t have a stockpot. . . . I know places with a big business where they don’t use ten pounds of butter a day.”
The New York restaurant world was stunned. You didn’t come right out and say things like this. It wasn’t just New York, either. Restaurateurs across the country were outraged. There was no such thing as food criticism in those days, no such thing as a restaurant critic. Newspaper pieces about restaurants were written to please the advertisers. Food articles usually relied on recipes sent in by readers or on corporate press releases. And food writers? A few did exist, but M. F. K. Fisher, good as she was, never complained, and James Beard’s judgment was for hire.
This was something entirely new. The writer, Craig Claiborne, had been the food editor of the New York Times for a year and a half, but until this moment he had been largely ignored by the brass. Their concerns were more serious than the decorators and couturiers and casseroles touted in the small section headed “Food Fashions Family Furnishings,” commonly known as the women’s page, where Craig’s work had till now always rather obscurely appeared.
What nobody realized was that Craig Claiborne was going to become the most powerful force American food had ever known.
The editor of the women’s page had always been a woman, and it had always been the custom at the Times to speak only sparingly of restaurants, and always politely. What had been noticed, vaguely, of the new, male editor was that he was a somewhat foppish Southerner with a distinctly literary style and an air of scholarly authority, but nobody high up had paid much attention to him till he pressed forward quite aggressively with his idea for this piece.
This was Craig Claiborne’s dream job. New York was where he was meant to be; his element, he’d felt it from his first moment; the glamour and the gaiety, so many chic women, so many such good-looking men, the dark hum of power unceasing under it all. The voice of the New York Times, the ultimate voice of authority, was now his. And he had more than a dream; he had a plan. He was going to teach America what good food was, and bad. With his intelligent and sympathetic criticism, a new excellence would arise.
He had looked forward to an exploration of fine dining in America’s leading fine-dining city, but New York’s supposedly best restaurants were proving quite a disappointment. Craig had been classically trained in cooking and in service at the best hotel school in the world, in Lausanne, Switzerland, and he had learned there just how fine the degrees of excellence were that could be discerned by a well-trained palate and a discriminating sense of taste. He expected to find in the serious restaurants of New York a more than ample arena in which to exercise his critical faculties. The city had, after all, attracted a plethora of French and other European chefs brought up in the rigorous traditions of their homelands. The farms of northeastern America were capable of growing fruits and vegetables as good as those of Europe. The region’s pastures were rich and abundant. The Atlantic and its bays, sounds, and estuaries teemed with fish and shellfish. Jet planes could now bring to these shores fresh European wild mushrooms, truffles, Normandy butter, sole fresh from the Strait of Dover, even the matchless fishes of the Mediterranean—turbot, Saint-Pierre, loup de mer. Money was no constraint in the postwar boom years, and the topmost restaurants of New York charged accordingly.
By the end of his first year and a half at the Times, however, Craig was fed up. His experience of the city’s restaurants—with one exception—had ranged from dispiriting down. Though he longed to celebrate the greatness that he knew a serious restaurant could achieve, time and again he found himself stymied. He really believed in his mother’s old Southern maxim that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything. If a place displeased him extremely, his preference was not to write about it at all. When pressed by his editors, he would comment only with his native strained reticence. Of Maud Chez Elle his faint praise was that “It is to this establishment’s special credit that the beans were cooked properly.”1 One can picture him blinking in prim dismay at Trader Vic’s “Scorpion, a gardenia-bedecked potion served to four persons from one container equipped with four straws.” It seemed to pain him even to mention the Trader’s “Queen’s Park Swizzle and the Doctor Funk of Tahiti.”2 One easily deduces his thrill at covering the opening of a new branch of the Stouffer’s chain in Garden City, Long Island, of which he managed to observe that it had “a capacity for 586,”3 or the Continental Restaurant, in a shopping center in Paramus, New Jersey, where the closest he could come to saying anything nice was that “Opulence and a long menu are very much in evidence.”4
The great exception was Le Pavillon, a grand French restaurant in Midtown Manhattan descended from the French government pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens and now ruled by the tyrannical Henri Soulé. Soulé was a snob to the public and a despot to his staff, but when it came to the classic haute cuisine of France he was an exacting perfectionist, and the food that emerged from his kitchen was superb. Le Pavillon was not only the best restaurant in New York; it was considered among the best in the world. Craig loved everything about the place.
In early 1959, he had persuaded his editors that the extreme contrast between his standards, as embodied in Le Pavillon, and the reality of dining in New York anywhere else was a story he ought to spend some time on. Once he got the go-ahead, his reporting for the piece was exhaustive. Interviewing classically trained chefs, he found nearly all of them institutionally thwarted. They were bitterly angry over union rules, cheapskate owners, arrogant waiters. Some of the restaurateurs, chefs, and dining room staff he talked to were long since hardened to sloth and corruption. But at Le Pavillon he found precision, excellence, devotion, and cooking nothing short of sublime.
Having had so many bad experiences as a diner, and so sharing the anger of the willing but frustrated workers behind the scenes, he concluded that the only proper course for his piece was to indict New York’s restaurants across the board, to identify the non-inevitable causes of their mediocrity, and to show in the example of Le Pavillon that excellence was possible. Back in the newsroom he couldn’t stop typing. The piece got longer and longer. Craig might have expected his editors to tell him to throttle back—this was only a piece about food, after all—but they didn’t. He also wanted a big photo spread, mainly of the kitchen at Le Pavillon, and they agreed to that, too.
This was a quite surprising request to make of a restaurant. One did not look into restaurant kitchens, and one did not photograph chefs. Too many kitchens were greasy, grimy workplaces, too many chefs growly old bloody-aproned laborers. The legendarily intractable Henri Soulé, however, told Craig that the New York Times would be most welcome in the kitchen of Le Pavillon.
The kitchen was spotless, and the chef, Pierre Franey, in his starched white apron and tall toque blanche, was startlingly young for a chef of such prestige—thirty-eight, Craig’s own age—and strikingly good-looking. The distance between the excellence of Le Pavillon and the absence of it in all the rest would be illustrated by a step-by-step series of photographs, adjacent to Craig’s piece, showing Franey preparing a whole fish stuffed with a mousse of sole and then covered with a Champagne sauce and garnished with a skewer of fluted mushrooms and black truffles. In another photograph, obviously of another restaurant, trays of tired, preheated food populate a steam table.
The headline type was small, and below the fold, but still it was on Page One, and the continuation inside took up most of a page: The piece was twenty-four hundred words long, a length the Times granted only to articles the editors deemed to be of real significance. It was a public sensation, but it would prove significant for Craig in another, entirely unanticipated, and personal way: He and Pierre Franey would become friends, and then professional partners; and they would work together for the next almost thirty years.
As for Craig’s criticism, “Elegance of Cuisine Is on Wane in U.S.” was just the beginning. It wasn’t just New York restaurants that he had it in for, and it wasn’t just high-end restaurants. It was nearly everything about food in America.
What Craig Claiborne saw when he looked out across the vast expanse of the United States was a gastronomic landscape blighted by ignorance and apathy, a drearily insular domain of overdone roast beef and canned green beans. The more he learned of it, the bleaker it looked. American food was terrible, and it was getting worse.
Household after household was losing its connection to the past. Old family recipes were consigned to attics, even tossed out with the trash. Canned-soup casseroles, Reddi-Wip, Swanson’s TV Dinners, instant coffee, Cheez Whiz, and a host of other abominations—reinforced by relentless advertising of unprecedented effectiveness via the suddenly ubiquitous medium of television—were freeing the American housewife from drudgery, and lulling American households into culinary torpor.
World War II had given American women a taste for employment and the sense of autonomy that it engendered, so much so that the prospect of “going to work”—out of the house, and collecting a paycheck of one’s own—had become a powerful social force. Making fresh coconut cake with vanilla boiled frosting and braising a mushroom-stuffed shoulder of lamb all afternoon really didn’t fit the picture anymore. Slapping together some dehydrated onion soup, a can of tuna, and some Miracle Whip, however, with a layer of nice crunchy Fritos on top and half an hour in a hot oven, while you, exhausted, and your equally wornout husband put your feet up and watched the news (and the commercials)—well, that was not too bad. Add in some kids, and it wasn’t only not too bad, it was, or soon came to seem, indispensable.
Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book was widely popular, and genuinely funny, in part because it was so embarrassingly true to the psychological reality of the home cook of the day:
Just shut your eyes and go on opening those cans.5
When you hate to cook, you owe it to yourself never to pass the canned Welsh Rabbit shelf in your supermarket without adding a few cans to your collection.6
Speaking of this, recipe books are always telling you to get a can of a ready-prepared dish and spike it with something, as though the product isn’t quite good enough for you as is. . . . But my own feeling is that you should give the prepared thing the benefit of the doubt and taste it before you start spiking. After all, those manufacturers have worked themselves loop-legged in their sunny test kitchens perfecting a formula that a lot of people like.7
The people of the United States had little connection to the great cuisines of the world. With the exception of the isolated pockets of recent immigrant groups who had maintained their cultural traditions, Americans just didn’t know what was possible. Chinese food was chop suey and chow mein, and did not even remotely resemble what real Chinese people ate. Italian food was pizza (Chef Boy-Ar-Dee from a box!) or spaghetti and meatballs. French? Something that called itself cuisine française could be had only in the biggest cities, and even there it was bastardized beyond anything anyone French could have recognized.
The United States had no equivalent of the great hotel schools of Europe, or of the rigorous apprenticeship system of Europe’s restaurants. Most restaurant cooks learned their trade from existing restaurant cooks who themselves were barely competent. In his front-page jeremiad Craig had pointed with some relief to the “one person making a valiant effort to perpetuate classic cookery in this country . . . Mrs. Frances Roth . . . administrative director of the nonprofit Culinary Institute of America.”8 The CIA was literally the only fully developed professional cooking school in the nation, and, at the time, frankly not a very good one.
In many parts of the country, there were few restaurants of any kind. In others, there might be a diner here or there, or a simple town café, or a boarding house, or a hotel dining room. When Craig was growing up in the Mississippi Delta, the nearest decent restaurant to his home was hundreds of miles away, in New Orleans (and it would have been pretty good, too). His mother served delicious Southern and Creole food in her boarding house—which meant that young Craig’s exposure to good food was truly exceptional.
Now at last from his high promontory at the New York Times, looking out across the whole dreary landscape of American food, he knew his challenge, and his great opportunity. If, bringing all his skill and all his knowledge to bear, he could elevate food, cooking, and dining to the level of significance he believed they should occupy in American life, he could be a cultural critic on a par with the paper’s critics of art, music, books, and the theater. He could change the way Americans ate, the way they thought about food, the way they lived. He could bring a realm of pleasure into their lives of whose existence they had previously not even known.
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Meet the Author
Thomas McNamee is the author of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, Life, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He lives in San Francisco.
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I found that this book shares some of the same shortcomings as McNamee's Alice Waters biography, and I can't quite explain why. Both are well and thoroughly researched, and both are realistic portrayals of gastronomic icons. And both are missing some je ne sais quoi. Maybe it's because they can't match the food, or the passion for the food. I do know that Craig Claiborne's columns changed the way I cooked and the way my family ate. In that sense, the book was a trip down memory lane. -- catwak
Full of details, anecdotes of world reknowned chefs and bittersweet personal accounts, this biography of the late Craig Claiborne is imposible to put down. Well written and extensively researched, it is a book not to be missed.
Loved this book. I knew Claiborne's name and had a vague sense of his name connected to the New York Times Cookbook, but that was it. Never knew anything of his importance in the world of American food, eating, and cooking. Enjoyed the book tremendously.
This is a strange biography, and ultimately a failed effort. No sense of Claiborne comes through the rather jagged prose. Problems are referred to but never explained. As a great admirer of the man, this rather poor effort is a major disappointment.