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Biographer Thomas McNamee on Craig Claiborne's Legacy and Today's Polluted Media

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Thomas McNamee's biography of legendary New York Times restaurant critic and cookbook author Craig Claiborne, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat, was just released by Free Press (buy on Amazon). The book traces Claiborne's journey from his mother's boarding house in Mississippi, his time in the Navy during World War II, his work as a trendsetter for food nationwide to his struggles with alcoholism and depression. Below, McNamee discusses Claiborne's legacy, what would appall him about restaurant criticism today, and that one time Claiborne infamously spent $4,000 on a single meal in Paris.

What drew you Craig Claiborne's story?
At first I was reluctant because I thought it was too simple a story, not challenging at all. But there was a Craig Claiborne event in New York in June of 2009, jointly put on by the New School for Social Research and by the Center For the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, and connections from that just came. All of the people who are still around from his days at the New York Times , well, they're all there and all talking. And I realized then that this was a fantastically complex and challenging human being. And so that's the aspect that for me was just as interesting as the historical one.

Claiborne was talented in so many areas — he wrote about restaurants, he wrote about entertaining, he wrote home recipes. What do you think his greatest legacies are?
Certainly I think the liberation of the home cook would be a major piece of it because people who cooked at home before Craig mostly did it in at atmosphere of drudgery. You know, it was typically a housewife who cooked alone in her kitchen. And in fact, now what's common is that people gather together in the kitchen. Maybe everybody pitches in, people are at least standing around with glasses of wine, participating in the preparation of the meal. And he made cooking fun, as simple as that.

I also was drawn to a fact that he was one of the first people who introduced different international styles of cooking to a mainstream American audience. You had Julia Child coming out at the same time with her French cookbook of course, but then Craig Claiborne worked on the New York Times International Cookbook, and The Chinese Cookbook. Do you think his interest in international food was influenced by being in New York, or his travels, or...?
No, that was just Craig. That's probably an equally important legacy. From the very beginning, his training was in the French haute cuisine from his hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland. And he always loved formal French cooking. And he always loved Southern cooking because it's what he grew up on at his mother's boarding house, which had extremely good food.

But he was always interested in the foods of the world. The first foreign food he ever tasted in a foreign ground was Moroccan food when he was back in the Navy, involved in the Allied invasion of North Africa. From his very first cookbook, The New York Times Cookbook of 1961, there were not only many so-called "foreign" recipes represented, but amazingly exotic dishes, some of them very difficult to prepare. I think one of the social benefits of this — besides the fact that we now have access to all these wonderful international cuisines, is that he treated all ethnicities and varieties of cuisine as equals.

There's this hierarchical collection of cuisines: French, Chinese, Italian at the top. He was just as interested in the cooking of Greece, of Brazil, of Vietnam.

How limited was he by ingredients sourcing, though? I know he was in New York, and things were probably slightly better there, but still.
Craig's access to ingredients compared to what anybody can have now was incredibly limited. I mean, he introduced crème fraîche, it was unheard of in this country. Basil, the herb, and pine nuts, and therefore pesto Genovese. The only lettuce in the store when he was first working with iceberg.

But as of now, you can go to the store and buy those things. You know, the access that we have now to fresher and better ingredients is astonishingly high. I can think of one episode in the — I think it was in the late 1970's, when these two French chefs from Le Duc restaurant in Paris were visiting. It's a fish restaurant. And they go down to the fish market [in New York] at 4:00 in the morning. They saw a scallop boat coming in. It had tons and tons and tons of scallops aboard and it had been out for 11 days. And these French chefs were just about sick to their stomachs, thinking about what condition the scallops in the bottom of that boat must have been in. Then they went in, they weren't frozen, and they were just refrigerated for 11 days. It's appalling.

Now of course we can get diver scallops and certainly very freshly harvested scallops almost anywhere. We just take it for granted. But back then to get fresh scallops, you had to — and he did — know scallopers. You had to have sort of special access like that to get anything of any quality like that.

To get fresh fish in New York was very difficult because the fish market was sort infiltrated by the Mafia and it was mainly built on just sheer profit. The whole retail fish market was built on just scandalous profits on lousy products. And the freshness available to him in fish was not very good until finally when he was living on Long Island and knew fishermen. And his professional partner Pierre Franey was himself a fisherman and so they would have striped bass just out of the water. But once again, that was something that only a very few people in those villages could find. Otherwise, you're stuck with either frozen or not very fresh fish.

So how did people react to these recipes that called for things that they didn't necessarily have access to? I mean, did they just sort of try to put together what they could? Or was it more like, well, that sounds great, but...?
Well, the genius of his early cookbooks was that these recipes were rendered with such simplicity that you could manage to make the dish even without necessarily the exotic ingredient. It wouldn't be exactly the same, so some Greek dish that in Greece would have fresh oregano, you'd have to use your jar of dried oregano to do it. But you could get close.

Let's switch gears and talk about his impact on restaurants. Claiborne was the first modern restaurant reviewer. How did the New York restaurant scene change after chefs and owners became aware that someone was watching?
Well, he was first at the Times in the fall of 1957. He was very excited about discovering great restaurants in New York and he was appalled to find how lousy they were, especially at the high end, mostly French restaurants which were using not fresh fish or using frozen vegetables. They were substituting chips of black olive for black truffle, it was a dishonest and snotty and all together distasteful business except for one single restaurant that he loved: Le Pavillon. And of course it was scandalously expensive.

And so his early attempts of restaurant reviewing were mostly so disappointing. He had been taught by his mother, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." So over and over again he would go to restaurants, find them disappointing and then not write a review, if he didn't want to just say how crummy the place was.

But gradually over time as he began to emphasize the good things that the few good restaurants were doing — and this would have included Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and Italian restaurants in Little Italy as well as the high-end restaurants. And he singled out what was good. People began to demand that, the customers began to demand food of that quality. And on that basis, at first slowly but with increasing speed, the restaurants in New York got better and better, kind of the rest of the country followed along.

Almost entirely due to his criticism, because he was alone. He was the only restaurant critic, professional restaurant critic with real integrity in the United States. He invented the field.

How do you think that reviewing has evolved since then?
Well, it was actually recently the 50th anniversary of his first reviews. And his reviews in those days would be about a hundred words long and it consisted mostly of the address and the phone number. He would give you a couple sentences, "So and so is a delightful French restaurant in the theater district." That would be the review.

Of course, what we see now in restaurants reviews are long, detailed essays. Commentary on the customers and the finest details on the preparation of the food and the execution of the service. And a great deal of the reviewer's own interests, own opinions. They're quite subjective. Craig's early reviews were very, very simple.

Well, he eventually went in that direction himself and he developed the restaurant review over time, more and more attentive to all the details of the dining experience. But when he began, it was pretty sketchy.

Do you think that he put less of himself into the reviews than current reviewers do?
Yes, very much. I think he was so sure of his own expertise and of his own standards. It wasn't necessary for him to play any personality games. He simply knew what was good. I think a lot of what we see now is strangely subjective where people first of all don't have that kind of background in cooking and the understanding of what goes into a restaurant experience from behind the scenes, like he did. And so what you get instead is a sort of off the cuff opinion without much experience to back it up.

And in his place it was completely the opposite. The expertise was taken for granted, that was foundational and so it was not necessary for him to check himself into the scene.

Do you think there are current reviewing practices that he would disapprove of?
Oh God, yes. Oh, my God, yes. I mean, I think that he would be totally appalled by the world of food magazines today where features are commonly polluted by product placement and all sorts of secret deals to advertisers. It's more than common, it's almost a universal practice that when a food magazine sends a writer out to write about restaurants, they make the restaurant pay for the meal. And so of course the restaurant knows exactly who the writer is and gives them all this special stuff.

Craig had all his meals paid for by the New York Times He went anonymously, and his integrity was absolute, unassailable. And today, in more cases than not, I think there's some level of — not necessarily corruption, but a sort of other interest than just getting the job done. In so many cases. And that's probably less true in reviewing for newspapers and websites and than it is in more feature writing for magazines. But they do all eventually kind of blend together. And there's a lot more showmanship and showing off now and less that's grounded in expertise and purity of purpose.

Do you really think Craig Claiborne was truly anonymous? He was friends with a lot of chefs and restauranteurs, right?
You're right. Eventually, he was certainly known to many restaurants, but by that time he also was barely reviewing restaurants anymore. He only was the official reviewer up until 1972. He went away for two years and created a journal which went broke and he returned to the Times but by then he was above the level — he was the editor and they had a whole staff and other people were doing restaurant reviews. By the time he was very well-known he was no longer a reviewer, he was with the King of American Food and anonymity was no longer an issue.

What do you think people who are familiar with Claiborne's story will find surprising in your book?
First of all, it's an unfortunate fact that he is not familiar to a great many people. Even professional chefs and restaurateurs at the age of 40 often don't know who the hell he was. Because he was not a publicity-seeker. He was famous but he didn't make any real effort to keep himself before the public.

I mean Julia Child, for example, she was brilliant on television and with the repetition of shows to this day she remains in the forefront of people's consciousness. James Beard was a relentless self-promoter. Craig didn't do any of those things. And he wasn't very good on television.

I was really surprised by the complexity of this guy and the fact that even though he was so extremely successful, he still was a very troubled person and had trouble getting through the day. He was an alcoholic, he had trouble with his relationships, both his friendships and sexual relationships, he was gay, but he never had a long term partner. The greatest affair of his life was with a married guy from Florida for whom it was a totally a secret life. The guy was a Republican country club leader with four kids and with this whole straight life in Florida. And Craig just continued to believe year after year that he was going to leave his wife and family and they'd go off into the Sunset together. That was a sad delusion because he was such a romantic. And just you know, he just believed this man would love him as much as Craig loved that guy, and he never did. And so Craig was often not very happy person. He found his happiness in his work.

How do you think your book portrays him differently than he portrays himself in his memoir?
It was A Feast Made For Laughter. It was published in 1982, and he had a lot more interesting life after that which of course that book didn't cover for starters. My book covers his whole life. He also — just like a lot of people who love to be entertaining at the dinner table — he cared more about the story than the truth. I think there are quite a numbers of things in his memoir that are sort of not quite true.

And he certainly didn't have a very full understanding himself despite the fact that he spent years and years in psychotherapy. I don't think he saw himself very clearly in the mirror and it was my job to see him clearly.

Last question: what's your favorite Craig Claiborne story?
I suppose my favorite Craig Claiborne story is the story of his $4,000 dinner in 1975 when he had won a charity auction for a public TV station for $300. American Express donated a dinner for two anywhere in the world using the American Express card with no price limit. Nobody except Craig, when that thing came across the screen realized, "Hey, wait a minute. No price limit? Let's run with this."

He ended up with him and his buddy Pierre Franey having the most expensive and most elaborate meal ever written up. Equivalent cost today would be something on the order of $20,000. Dinner for two.

And they were probably some of the only people in the world with the knowledge to run up a tab that high.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you could look at the coverage [warning: PDF] of the meal, it's inconceivable that anybody could actually eat all that stuff.

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