There are few people more revered in the food world than Craig Claiborne.
So it seems appropriate the new biography of the legendary New York Times food critic is titled The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat. Because he did.
Claiborne is often touted as not only the one who invented professional restaurant criticism, but also the man who introduced the American public to arugula, balsamic vinegar and chef's knives, leading us out of the wasteland of canned peas. As someone who grew up on overdone roast beef, we recommend nothing short of sainthood.
Biographer Thomas McNamee (Alice Waters and Chez Panisse) has done his homework here, offering up a full portrait of Claiborne, whose life was not all crème fraiche. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The man who always wore a crisp shirt and a tight smile was quite the mess underneath.
Yes, he got to the culinary mountaintop — he became the New York Times food editor in 1957 and never looked back, writing books and restaurant reviews for 29 years — but he wasn't always able to enjoy the view.
Amazingly insecure considering what he had made of himself, Claiborne (who died in January 2000 at age 79) spent much of his life covering up his boarding room Mississippi childhood and his homosexuality. He did so by drinking. Way too much. He could be a mean drunk, too.
"The prime culprit in Craig's behavior was alcohol," writes McNamee. "All those margaritas and vodkas and Scotches and stingers had also made him more reckless."
But in the end, despite his demons, he was still able to change America. Speaking directly to Claiborne at the end of his biography, McNamee has this to say: "The world you transformed, Craig Claiborne, is the world we cook in, dine in and talk about food in. Here's to you."