… is this new biography of pioneering New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne:
“He saw himself as a critic on a par with the paper’s critics of books, art, music and drama, and he was determined to bring to his work a rigor and gravity equal to theirs,” writes Thomas McNamee in “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat” (Free Press, $27), a biography of Claiborne that is being published this month …
Decades before it became fashionable to ride the No. 7 train in search of the cuisine of recent immigrants, Claiborne was prowling the streets in search of Filipino, Armenian, Lebanese, Mexican, Hungarian and Czech menus. He alerted readers to the rise of Japanese restaurants and praised Chinese food that was relatively un-Americanized. When Shun Lee Dynasty came along in the mid-1960s with its menu of Sichuan specialties, he gave it three out of four stars …
Claiborne’s reviews were just one part of that model. He wrote about changing tastes in the White House kitchen, stood by the stove with home cooks who showed him how to prepare tortillas, and reported on the rise of nouvelle cuisine in France. He traveled, most famously to Paris for a $4,000 dinner that he wrote up on the front page, but to more far-flung locales, too.
“I think people were sort of astonished when he did things like he went to Vietnam during the war and sat there within the sound of gunfire, and discovered things like shrimp on a stick,” said Mr. McNamee, Claiborne’s biographer. “He was able to go to Alaska and eat blubber and moose liver and write about it in this strange trance. He seems to take everything in stride. I think this sort of nervelessness helped him bring people around to just trying anything.”
If every meal could be critiqued, even a doughnut at the counter of Chock Full o’ Nuts, then everybody could be a critic. Followed far enough, this road leads to Yelp. But it also leads to thousands of Americans treating each meal not as mere nourishment, and not as a reinforcement of social status, but as a chance to taste something new and wonderful.
I’ll have some thoughts on the state of restaurant criticism in Australia – both professional and amateur – in tomorrow’s edition of the Spectator Australia, available wherever fine periodicals are sold.