Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Man Who Changed The Way We Eat

Sometimes in this day of reality television and the internet we can get the impression that everything has changed in the last decade and all before the year 2000 was slow and bland.  For foodies we have seen an explosion of websites, blogs, books and television shows about our favorite pastime.  But did the food world really begin to change with the likes of The Food Network and Emeril Lagasse?  Not even close.  Processed food after World War II, public television and inexpensive world travel for people and food alike really started to change the food world more than a generation ago.  Most of us can remember Julia Child on PBS.  To me she was the symbol of cooking as a hobby.  Travel in Europe in the early 80s introduced me to food as a mode of cultural expression.  The Food Network just fed the interest.  Now I can’t turn on the television without a few foodie shows to choose from.  The Food section of the local bookstore is overflowing.  Where did it all begin?  

I recently read Thomas McNamee’s biography of Craig Claiborne, The Man Who Changed The Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance.    Claiborne was the food editor at The New York Times beginning in 1957 and was arguably the most influential voice in the food world, certainly in the restaurant world of New York City.  I confess to having little knowledge of him prior to reading this book, but now I wonder how I missed him.  Claiborne was a larger than life personality credited with a significant role in popularizing everyone from Julia Child, Paul Bocuse and Paul Prudhomme to Marcella Hazan and foods such as arugula and balsamic vinegar.  He was a massive figure in the food world at a time when there wasn’t the cacophony of 400 TV stations and the internet.  To be food editor at The Times was to be kingmaker. 
McNamee does a masterful job of bringing him to life.  The Man Who Changed The Way We Eat is thoroughly researched and cited, and tells Claiborne’s story from birth to death.  He was clearly a very complex, conflicted and passionate individual.  Claiborne grew up in Mississippi and seems to have envisioned himself near-royalty.  Throughout his life he lived beyond his sometimes-considerable means, drank far too much, and indulged most every vice.  He held restaurants to unbelievable, Old World standards and would live long enough to see such standards fall way out of vogue.  In the process he appears to struggle with self-doubt and a lack of direction in a changing marketplace.  In the end he seems quite sad.

I found the book wonderfully readable.  Though dense with detail, it reads smoothly.  There were many sections I didn’t want to end or in which I just wanted to keep reading.  I think that is a great compliment for such a detailed bio.  McNanee seems to have left no stone unturned, no detail unreported.  In fact, it has moments where it seems rather scholarly…in a good way.  By the end I truly felt like I knew Claiborne.

If you are interested in how the food world as we know it came to be, give this book a read.
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