If you grew up before Craig Claiborne changed the way Americans eat, you remember Sunday roasts that were cooked to death and Monday stews that were a bit of leftover meat with lots of diced potatoes, swimming in gravy.
It was a time, in the 1950s and early 1960s, when all vegetables came from a can, all lettuce was iceberg and an Italian dinner was a pound of ground meat, browned and mixed with a can of tomato sauce and a can of tomatoes and ladled over dried pasta. We didn't even call it pasta. Everything was "spaghetti."
No one had ever heard of stock, and certainly nobody made their own. Parmesan cheese came in a shaker can, not from Italy, and it tasted like dust. You could store that other cheese, Velveeta, in a cupboard, and all bread was white and spongy. If you opened a can of condensed soup and spilled it over some chicken, you were an adventurous cook.
This was the food wasteland that Claiborne, from his perch as food editor of The New York Times, sought to remake, and he fired his opening shot on the front page of The Times, declaring that good food and impeccable service — such as he had learned in a prestigious hotel school in Switzerland — was sadly missing in the city where this Mississippi Delta boy had been certain he would find it.
This unprecedented critique created an uproar, and over the next 30 years a single paragraph written by him could close a restaurant or launch a cookbook career. He would make kitchen must-haves out of whisks, chef's knives and fish poachers.
Claiborne, a fussy and shy little man with impeccable taste, was for that time the most powerful man in American food, and it is safe to say that no one — not Emeril, not Paula, not Giada, not even Martha — has matched the breadth, innovation and authority of his work.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first of his restaurant reviews in The Times — they were no more than 100 words. Last month saw the publication of a biography by Thomas McNamee titled, appropriately, "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat."
Claiborne invented restaurant criticism and imbued it with implacable standards: He dined anonymously, frequently and often with three or four friends, and paid for the meal from his bottomless expense account. It had been the case that restaurant reviews were a kind of function of a newspaper's advertising strategy and only good reviews were printed — in exchange, of course, for continued advertising dollars from the restaurateurs.
He also invented food journalism, bringing exacting reporting and great writing to a subject that had pretty much just been about product-placement recipes featuring this brand of tuna or that brand of mayonnaise.
It was also true, in those postwar days, that home cooking was pretty much drudgery, accomplished in the kitchen, alone and without inspiration, by the wife and served up to the family or to guests without comment.
Today, intelligent conversation about food — and with guests gathered in the kitchen while the cook shows off some new skill — is as common as onion dip and potato chips once were. Bruschetta anyone? Hummus and pita?
McNamee makes the case that Claiborne was as unhappy as he was influential. Surprisingly open about his homosexuality — he granted interviews to gay magazines about his hope for love, and his autobiography was shocking — he was nonetheless uncomfortable in his own skin, drinking heavily and ricocheting among psychiatrists.
He had a toxic relationship with his mother, a proud woman brought low by her husband's financial ruin, who ran a boardinghouse and served remarkably good Southern food to her guests. The kitchen, and the laps of the black servants who worked there, were the only refuge for the self-described "little sissy boy."
Though he would give her financial support until she died, Claiborne banished his mother from his life and did not even attend her funeral. He pretty much drank himself to death in January 2000, 12 years after The Times tired of his increasingly uneven work and pushed him out the door. Though the world's greatest chefs regularly gathered to fete him and cook for him, there was no memorial service until almost four years later.
It is impossible to separate Claiborne's power over the food establishment from the power of The Times. And his expense account allowed him to roam the world in search of new tastes, new cooks, new ingredients. He wrote glowingly of Vietnamese street food during the height of the war, as shells exploded around him.
He would not approve of the way we eat now: casual attire, noisy dining rooms, lousy service and the erosion of the classic French haute cuisine techniques and dishes that he adored.
But we should lift a glass to him, as McNamee does in his final pages. Craig Claiborne made food and eating one of the great pleasures of life.