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Sunflower County’s Claiborne brought good taste to America

"The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance" by Thomas McNamee. $27 hardcover

Craig Claiborne falls into the category of Mississippians who made good. The quiet gentleman from Indianola had a tremendous influence on eating in America. He was reared in his mother’s boarding house where he ate traditional Southern cooking, which we know is tasty but laden with fat and calories. It was quite a leap from Sunflower County to being the food critic for the New York Times.

When Claiborne moved to New York in the 1950s, America was a land of overdone roast beef and canned green beans – a gastronomic wasteland. Most restaurants relied on frozen, second-rate ingredients and served so-called Continental cuisine. Authentic French, Italian and Chinese foods were virtually unknown. There was no such thing as food criticism or a restaurant critic. Cooking at home wasn’t thought of as a source of pleasure. Professional equipment and cookware were used only in restaurants. Claiborne changed all that.

He is credited with introducing America to famous chefs Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, and Jacques Pepin through major book and restaurant reviews. His $4,000 dinner for two in Paris was a front-page story and scandalized the world. While Claiborne defended the true French nouvelle cuisine against bastardization, he also reveled in a well-made stew or a good hot dog. He made dinner an event, whether dining out or cooking for family. His own dinner parties were legendary.

The author, Thomas McNamee, has written well-documented books about nature, including “The Grizzly Bear” and “The Return of the Wolf” to Yellowstone. He also wrote “Alice Waters” and “Chez Panisse” and has published many essays and poems. He was born in Memphis and studied writing at Yale with Robert Penn Warren.

 

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