Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat by Thomas McNamee

Craig Claiborne was quite a guy. Dramatic, damaged, smart, ambitious - characteristics that make for a difficult life, but an interesting one. They also make for an interesting story and Thomas McNamee's biography of Claiborne, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat, is certainly that.

Claiborne had a difficult childhood in Mississippi, thanks to his social climbing mother, and he carried much of that difficulty with him throughout his life. In some ways, dealing with early adversity made him stronger and more ambitious - this is a man who essentially created the modern restaurant review and you don't do that without some serious willpower. But McNamee's book makes clear that even at the top of his game, Craig was, in some respects, a delicate man.

The book is well-researched and a must-read for anyone interested in the twentieth century explosion in American food. Occasionally, I found McNamee's writing a touch self-conscious - I noticed the writing more than the content - but that's a small complaint. Overall, it's a good book.

I especially enjoyed this passage, talking about the burst in food awareness, circa 1961:
"Luncheons, picnics, brunches, new restaurants, dinner parties. All of a sudden, it seemed, these were what people were doing for entertainment. You didn't stop going to the theater or the ball game, but now, a meal with friends was a whole evening's pleasure, and you had a whole new thing to talk about - best of all, unlike family or politics, one without danger - the food."
Sounds familiar. And it's a nice reminder that, much like sex, our generation didn't invent food.

But Craig's generation did invent food writing as we know it. I have to admit, though, the writing that's excerpted in the's on the flowery side. Rambling at times. Idiosyncratic and, often, not very specific. He doesn't seem to have done much following up - when describing dishes, he sometimes guessed at the ingredients. That would never fly in my reviews!

McNamee's descriptions of Craig's trips and expense reports is jarring, as well, if only because we currently live in a world without travel budgets. In April, Food52 maven (and former New York Times restaurant critic) Amanda Hesser got much publicity for her blunt and not particularly rosy column titled, "Advice for Future Food Writers." Her advice basically boiled down to this: Food writing is a hobby, not a moneymaking venture. Budding food writers reading that, then reading about Craig's numerous trips to Paris, might not be able to choke back their tears.

But even through the tears, it's a good read. Entertaining, educational and an interesting look back at the roots of today's food-obsessed culture.

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