Since I didn't speak with author Thomas McNamee — born-and-bred Memphian — when he was in Memphis to sign his latest book a few months ago, I did the next best thing: reach McNamee by phone in Montana, where he spends his summers. The topic of discussion: McNamee's The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance (Free Press/Simon & Schuster), and you can read more about McNamee's life of Claiborne, the first biography of the celebrated New York Times food writer and restaurant critic who died more than a decade ago, in the September issue of Memphis magazine. Here, for now, though, and starting out on a disturbing note:
What did happen?
Claiborne seems to have groped his father in some way, and his father either slept through it or pretended to sleep through it. You can't tell if it happened once or a hundred times or a thousand times. Either Claiborne made it up on purpose to shock people, or he'd come to believe it himself in some neurotic, twisted "recovered" memory.
I don't believe it happened. Claiborne's family was pleased to hear I'd come to that conclusion in my book. They were grossed out by the idea that this respectable father of Craig Claiborne would have been involved in something so horrifying.
Respectability: That was of key concern to the Claiborne household.
My father was born seven years before Claiborne — in the Mississippi Delta, 30 miles from where Claiborne was born in Sunflower. Claiborne's family was poor and my father's family was not, but they were culturally all still members of the same upper middle class — not quite aristocracy but ultra-respectable, church-going, rule-bound, very much concerned with family.
I grew up in Memphis, but I was constantly going to the Delta to see my father's family, a world I knew backward and forward. It's a world the rest of the U.S. does not know even to this day. They know the fictionalized versions of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I know the folkways, the prejudices, the cultural nuances. That gave me a tremendous step up as a biographer of Craig Claiborne.
Now add in the complication that Claiborne as a boy was a sissy being beaten up by the tough boys of Mississippi. I thought that's an interesting twist: He's very much in the culture, but he's an outsider from the time he was a little boy, an effeminate little boy.
Claiborne was an outsider too even as a young man. But he enjoyed life in the U.S. navy.
He went to Mississippi State, where he lasted a year and a half. He joined Pi Kappa Alpha, this macho fraternity. He couldn't have fit in less well. And yet, he was imbued with the culture. He'd never been anywhere else. The family was too poor. He didn't know any other world. So his first motivation was to get the hell out of Mississippi. He drifted for years. He went to the University of Missouri journalism school, and he joined the navy after Pearl Harbor. The navy had a tremendous and protected gay subculture. He loved the navy.
Then Claiborne floated around Chicago. Then the Korean War broke out. He rejoined the navy and was stationed on a South Pacific island ... taking it easy, on the beach, figuring out what to do with himself. But he was 33, still basically in the position of a teenager and wondering what to do with himself. That's when he started to think: Well, he really did love food, and he got the notion of going to Switzerland. And somewhere between Korea and Lausanne, he developed a ferocious ambition, when, before, he'd had no ambition at all.
Lausanne is where Claiborne attended the prestigious Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association. He went there because a manager at the Peabody hotel in Memphis said that's where Claiborne should train.
Claiborne tells different stories — the advice had come through his mother or through a fellow sailor — but the recommendation was clearly from the Peabody's banquet manager that Claiborne go to the hotel school in Lausanne rather than the Cordon Bleu in Paris. That was the life-changing event of his whole early life. Going to that school made him realize how important food could be as a cultural force.
That school also demanded discipline.
Claiborne's mother ran a boarding house. Everything had to be just so — the table, the food served. He inherited an instinct for order from his mother. And that was amplified in the navy: the spit-and-polish.
In Switzerland, there was even more of that. And by the time Claiborne got to New York and set out on a career as a serious food writer, he was not only shooting for the top, he was shooting for the top of a field that, in the late 1950s, didn't exist! He had to build the mountain he was going to climb.
There's another major Memphis connection in your book: Memphian Elinor Turner, who went on to marry artist Ed Giobbi.
Elinor and Ed were among the most important sources for me. Ed is extremely fair-minded. He was as close a friend as Craig Claiborne had. He stuck with him until the end, when Claiborne became more or less unbearable. Ed was willing to see things from every angle. He was willing to talk about Claiborne's foibles and not just about what a sweet guy he was.
The suggestion that I do the biography was originally from Dorothy Kalins, one of the founding editors of Saveur magazine and the first to publish any food writing by me. Then my agent, David McCormick, seconded the motion. Still, I was reluctant to do the book, because I was already embarked on my memoir. My agent said, "Tom, you're not famous. You're not a drug addict. Forget the memoir."
This was back in 2008. Lehman Brothers had just crashed. The book market was shrinking. Publishers weren't acquiring many books. But my agent said he could sell, for me, a food book or a biography. I'd just done Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, which was both a food book and a biography.
Then Dorothy said there was going to be a big pow wow in New York in June of '09 — two days, all about Craig Claiborne, put on by the New School and by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. They'd draw together those who'd worked with Claiborne at The New York Times, those who knew him through the food world, plus those who knew him from the South.
I went, and I was mesmerized by the complexity of Craig Claiborne the person. Up to that point, I'd thought it was too simple a story: a term paper of some sort, do the research, tell the story, that would be the book — important person, "father" of American food, yada yada yada. It didn't seem like that much of a challenge.
But when I went to that symposium in New York and people started talking about Claiborne, I thought a biography would be an amazingly challenging task because of his complexity and contradictions as a person ... his psychological depth and plain old screwiness. That's what hooked me.
But you were certainly already familiar with Craig Claiborne's writing.
I married my childhood sweetheart from Whitehaven. We moved to New York after I graduated from Yale and my wife had been through Mary Baldwin College. The first thing we loved to do together was cook, but neither of us knew anything about it. We learned from Claiborne's New York Times Cook Book and from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1.
I also had a rich uncle from Mississippi who'd come to New York often, and he and his wife loved to eat in the fancy French restaurants. I had the advantage of being able to speak French, which was a tremendous boost. The restaurants in those days were so snobby, particularly if you had a deep Delta accent, as my uncle did. They thought you were an idiot — and my uncle wasn't an idiot — if you talked like that.
The early '70s: That was the heyday of Craig Claiborne's restaurant reviews. When they appeared on Friday in the Times, I'd run out, grab the paper, and open it to his review — the way other people would open to the Yankees results. My wife and I were not alone. There were thousands of New Yorkers who did that.
So, you consider yourself an early foodie?
I know there's a tendency to rebel against the use of that word, like there is against the word "gooor-may," but sure: I love to cook. I love to eat out.
And I may be doing a Craig Claiborne greatest-hits cookbook: what I consider his most delightful recipes. I've got the proposal for the book at my publisher right now.
One of my favorites is Claiborne's instructions on how to eat a raw oyster. It's the most unbelievably detailed description. Where to put the oyster in your mouth. Where to bite down on it. How to swallow it. It's kinda whacky.
Sounds it. But is there anyone today with the influence that Craig Claiborne had at his height?
No, no one like him today. He was the one — except for maybe Gael Greene, but she never had Claiborne's power. He was THE emperor of a single empire. Now we have dozens of principalities in the food world. There's no king or queen.