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.
A funny thing happened on the way to the pho room. Several months ago, a friend and I made plans to meet at “that new Vietnamese joint down Magazine Street, the one across from the burrito place.” We ended up at different restaurants, both recently opened, doors down from each other.
In 1900, twenty-five cents bought The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, a kitchen compendium that vouched to be “the first that has ever been attempted, and probably the only one that can ever be made.” Experts have called it not only “the ultimate cook book on Creole cuisine,” but the “most notable among early-twentieth-century food writings.”
The South’s “past now belongs to myth and memory,” he wrote, while its food endured despite the intrusion of that decade’s new American cuisine and its “sin of subtraction.” Modern cookbooks removed fat, salt, and sugar from recipes—cooking no longer took time.