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PAST & REPAST: Craig Claiborne

southern food

Photo of the columnist by Denny Culbert.

Food and History:

Discussed: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee

(Free Press, May 2012)

On May 24, 1963, the stars fell on Jimmy’s Greek American Restaurant. Two out of three stars, in fact, denoting an eatery of “superior quality.” Located in a cellar near Manhattan’s Battery Park, Jimmy’s served “far and away the best” Hellenic food in the city. The New York Times readers who felt no compulsion to visit Jimmy’s for moussaka and braised lamb could try Del Pezzo (“veal dishes in particular are recommended,” at this one-star restaurant “of more than routine interest”) or The Black Angus and La Petite Maison (neither deemed star worthy).

Craig Claiborne, the unbylined writer behind these four all-too-brief reviews, began critiquing restaurants a year prior, but now, with the addition of the star-grading system to his “Directory to Dining” column (a fourth star would be added in 1964), he hoped to not only encourage adventurous eating but also force the hand of restaurateurs and chefs. Since 1957, when he became the newspaper’s first male food editor—a position wrapped up in what was then titled the “Food Fashions Family Furnishings” section, aka “the women’s page”—Claiborne endeavored to improve what it meant to eat in America, demanded excellence from the kitchen, and encouraged exploration at the table.

Growing up in the tiny Delta town of Indianola, Mississippi, Claiborne (born in 1920) attended Passover Seder, consumed tamales from a Mexican pushcart, and learned to use chopsticks. His mother’s boarding-house kitchen served refined fare beyond its Depression-era means. Claiborne’s schooling at the École Professionnelle de la Société Suisse des Hôteliers, a high-service school in Geneva, revealed to him that most Americans lacked any sort of what he called “gastro-semanticism.” They did not know their sauces Chasseur from their Hongroise, much less that you could actually cook with wine.

Upon moving to New York in 1954, Claiborne looked out from his window at the West Side YMCA and perceived a gastronomic wasteland; in restaurants ranging from the proletarian to the luxurious, not to mention the cooking practiced in home kitchens, the food served was mostly pedestrian, tin-brained, and tin-canned. Though living among millions of immigrants and countless ethnic eateries, New Yorkers of Claiborne’s ilk—meaning white readers of the Times—rarely ventured into the exotic. “The American diet,” Claiborne fretted in 1958, “is seriously in need of overhauling.”

craig claiborne

In the most cosmopolitan city in the world and armed with the Times editorship, Claiborne struck out to “understand everything about food equally thoroughly,” according to his biographer, Thomas McNamee. He took his readers where they had never dared dine before, even if it was just a hop into the outer boroughs. “The most pleasurable thing about dining” in New York, he wrote in 1969, “is the broad and agreeable spectrum of dining in small, inexpensive, less celebrated ethnic restaurants.” His encouragement: Go “Over the River and into Brooklyn.”

And like any intrepid traveler into the belly of darkness, Claiborne came prepared. He fashioned a set of rules, a trio of ethical pillars, to guide his reviews. The reviewer would eat with a group of three to four diners (in order to fully cover the menu’s span), visit the restaurant under consideration at least three times, and the meal would be covered by the publication, meaning no handouts accepted. Most importantly, the critic would remain anonymous. In effect, Craig Claiborne invented the modern restaurant review and the role of professional food critic.

Inherent in Claiborne and the position he created was an insatiable appetite: consume everything, everywhere. For a man who frequently covered his own self-indulgences in print, Claiborne’s most expensive article and meal quickly became his most infamous. On November 14, 1975, the Times’ front page carried the headline, “Just a Quiet Dinner for 2 in Paris: 31 Dishes, 9 Wines, a $4,000 Check.” The outrage that followed the article’s sublime descriptions of such idle opulence—partridge chartreuse, quail mousse tarte, 1918 Château Latour, etc., adding up to over four times that total in today’s dollars—was only heightened by New York City’s concurrent brush with bankruptcy.  

Was the meal worth it? For Claiborne, a simple “no.”

The critic’s popularity—over four hundred newspapers syndicated his columns—led to every newspaper requiring a Claiborne on staff to reflect on every local dining establishment. Just witness the media viralness and internet chortling bestowed upon Marilyn Hagerty’s Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald review of, yes, a new location of the Olive Garden. 

But a half-century after Claiborne’s innovation, the professional food critic is frequently being 86’d. The importance of the expert restaurant reviewer might have faded around the time its inventor passed in 2000. A decade later, The Oregonian terminated its food editor and restaurant reviewer covering Portland, home to one of the nation’s most influential culinary scenes. The Los Angeles Times, this past March, snuffed out their star system because, their editor insisted, “a food truck, a neighborhood ethnic restaurant, a one-time-only pop-up run by a famous chef, and a palace of fine dining” cannot be equally, and thus fairly, accessed. (Claiborne starred an entire constellation of New York eateries with just this parity in mind: His very first three-star review (June 7, 1963) went to the “unpretentious and neat” Gil Clark’s clam shack on Long Island.) And then, in June, my hometown paper, the Times-Picayune, laid off longtime critic Brett Anderson before, just days later, offering him a chance to return. With Anderson away on a Nieman journalism fellowship for the next year, the Picayune’s food section, which uses red beans instead of stars, has seemingly abandoned its weekly restaurant reviews.

In an era of slashed expense accounts (last year, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema copped to spending $70,000 “personally and professionally” on restaurant meals annually), print-journalism layoffs (all three newspapers above have recently cut employees), and everyone’s-a-critic blogdom (obviously), professional restaurant reviewers have, according to some editors, chefs, and would-be experts, become negligible. 

So, we must ask ourselves: Do restaurant critics still matter? In a world where “we’re all restaurant critics,” writes McNamee in the book’s coda, and “we’re all chefs,” who will change the way we eat?

In today’s modern gastronomic landscape, we do not require persuading to try something new—indeed the shock of the new has worn off. In my hometown of New Orleans, Vietnamese restaurants mushroom in every neighborhood, a coffee shop transforms nightly into a Filipino eatery, and a traditional Korean joint takes over a building that formerly housed a Taco Bell. We have become a nation of gastro-semanticists. We are the children of Craig Claiborne. 

 


 

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