Serious Reads: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat, by Thomas McNamee

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Today's world of food writing is rich and multifaceted. Restaurant reviews appear in many major newspapers, cookbooks and memoirs are published at a rapid-fire rate, and chefs are household names. But this world was not always so rewarding or delicious. When Craig Claiborne entered the food scene in the late 1950s, the New York Times hardly considered food worth its own page, let alone a whole section. But Claiborne's engaging writing, personal connections in the culinary world, and ability to draw thousands of followers around the world changed the face of food writing. In The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance, Thomas McNamee details Claiborne's rise to fame as well as his lifelong struggles.

Claiborne was trained at the Lausanne Hotel School, one of the best in the world. His time spent at the hospitality school taught him what to expect from world-class service and food. He was trained in everything from scrubbing floors to serving haute cuisine, and he would later use this expertise to determine that New York City was distinctly lacking in delicious, upscale restaurants.

When he first took on the job as food editor for the New York Times, he was the first man to ever hold the position. Food had historically been lumped together with fashion and family on the "women's page," hardly the most prestigious element of the paper. But Claiborne changed the section's reputation. In his time at the Times, which he often described as his dream job, he critiqued many of the day's top restaurants. He noticed overcooked fish, stuffy service, and corked wine in the city's landmark eateries. He also introduced the starred ratings system that the Times uses to this day, and which has determined the success or failure of hundreds of restaurants around the city.

Claiborne loved chefs, and often wrote lengthy profiles of these usually behind-the-scenes characters for the paper. One of his dearest lifelong friends was Pierre Franey, chef at the famous Le Pavillon restaurant. He became a part of the Franey family, known to the children as Uncle Craig, and often vacationed with them. This close friendship helped Claiborne through many tumultuous times.

For all his accomplishments, prestige, and close friends, Claiborne struggled with depression and alcoholism for most of his adult life. His heavy drinking increased as he became more frustrated and less satisfied with his position at the Times; irritability and cruelty accompanied his binges, and some friendships were lost to his erratic behavior. Claiborne also dealt with the trials of being a gay man in a closeted era, and did not go public with his sexuality until the publication of his memoir, A Feast Made for Laughter, in 1982. He was 62.

McNamee's book paints a detailed picture of a complicated man, whose excessive and exuberant lifestyle eventually resulted in devastating health complications that would lead to his death in 2000. Claiborne left behind a legacy of newspaper writing, several cookbooks, and a memoir; and he paved the road for the next generation of food writers and their subjects. The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat is an important and lasting homage to this pioneer, who forged the field of food writing.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.