I hate to admit it, but it took a man to break the distaff hold on newspaper food pages. With his first piece for the New York Times in 1957 on apple pie, Craig Claiborne moved food writing from an advertising adjunct to real reporting.
Given the culinary riches of New York, changing attitudes toward food and social life, and his own relentless curiosity, Claiborne would eventually move American kitchens into real and adventurous cooking. My mother enjoyed Julia Child as much as anyone, but French didn’t inspire her. Instead we grew up on Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook recipes—quiche, boeuf bourguignon, sopa seca—all designed to be cooked at home.
As McNamee points out in this biography, Claiborne found inspiration from good cooks, whether at home or in the restaurant kitchen. He calls it Claiborne’s “ennoblement of the home cook,” and it made for great newspaper stories—interactive before that was a cyber-term. He respected expertise, wherever he found it and encouraged his readers to develop their own. He brought the names we all know—Diana Kennedy, Edna Lewis, Paul Prudhomme—into our kitchens along with the tools needed to cook their food—from salad spinners to nuoc mam.
Claiborne also established standards for culinary journalism—from his rigorous Swiss hotel school training to never taking a free meal or endorsing products. Through his newspaper recipes, cookbooks, and professional partnership with Pierre Franey, Claiborne made cooking and sharing food a fun and sophisticated way to spend time. He made ethnicity something to be proud of, not hide.
But in tracing Claiborne’s early life in his mother’s Indianola, Mississippi boardinghouse, education at Mississippi State, navy stints around the world, training in Lausanne, and a food writing career that spanned 30 years, McNamee illustrates the irony of a man who brought Americans to the table, a place we associate with friendship and family, who had a troubled personal life.
Claiborne’s earliest food inspirations came from the Southern cooking at his mother’s boardinghouse where he found refuge in the kitchen. His mind was turned to a wider world by varied experiences and encounters—a gift of chopsticks from a missionary aunt and the Mexican and Italian food vendors.
His work first appeared in 1955 issues of Gourmet magazine—articles on tea and vodka. Those articles set a pattern he would follow through his career at the New York Times and in his cookbooks—a bit of history, literary references, and clear explanations. For that article on tea, McNamee writes that Claiborne made hundreds of pages on notes; he didn’t tolerate shortcuts in cooking or writing. It was the same painstaking research that led him to research prospective editors—perhaps part of his own personality, but certainly nurtured by meticulous Swiss training.
But it was Claiborne’s voice that would capture his readers; as McNamee describes it “genial, magisterial, casually knowing, and sort of funny-peculiar.” It was a voice that would change the American home cook.