It's a strange time for food journalism and restaurant criticism. As newspapers scale back their operations and staff, full-time restaurant critics and food editors are being shown the door — the Times-Picayune and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch are just two of the papers who have laid off their award-winning experts and The Los Angeles Times Food section has gone from an eight page stand alone Wednesday section to being folded into a catchall Saturday living section.
All of this editorial turmoil makes it a particularly interesting time to be reading Thomas McNamee's biography of the man who is set the standards for restaurant criticism as we know — or knew it. In The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance
McNamee, author of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution
turns his attention to another culinary game changer.
Claiborne took food writing out of the "women's section" and made it news with his work at the Times, beginning in 1957. He is credited not only with inventing modern anonymous restaurant criticism but with introducing U.S. readers and eaters to arugula, balsamic vinegar, salad spinners, nuoc mam, and Szechuan. McNamee explores Claiborne's life from a Southern childhood, his military stint which introduced him to global eating, his struggles with sexuality, a serious drinking problem and his culinary triumphs.
More than just a biography of a nearly endlessly interesting life, the book tell the story of how the current food world came to be. Speaking directly to Claiborne at the end of his biography, McNamee has this to say: "The world you transformed, Craig Claiborne, is the world we cook in, dine in and talk about food in. Here's to you."