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Review: Food critics Raymond Sokolov, Craig Claiborne got us talking

The chew-and-tell food memoir has subgenres. One is the behind-the-kitchen-door romp, like Anthony Bourdain's excellent Kitchen Confidential or Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter, which proves every restaurant entree comes with a free side of crazy sauce.

Another subset is the restaurant-critic tell-all. Ruth Reichl's 2005 Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise was not the first, but it may be the most influential. Chronicling her gig as the wig-wearing New York Times restaurant critic starting in 1993, it's a lusty look at what it's like to eat for a living. (Reichl is all about TMI — her love life's culinary equivalent is the Vegas buffet: tawdry and a little tired, but there sure is a lot of it.)

New York magazine's Gael Greene wrote Insatiable, Vogue's Jeffrey Steingarten wrote The Man Who Ate Everything, the New York Times' Frank Bruni wrote Born Round, and the list goes on.

Steal the Menu, Raymond Sokolov's memoir of 40 years in the food-writing biz, debuted Tuesday. It coincides with the paperback publication of The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance, by Thomas McNamee. Sokolov followed Claiborne as the food critic at the New York Times, their tenures there overlapping somewhat as Claiborne departed to start his own high-flying culinary newsletter before he thought better of it and returned to the fold.

Taken together, the books are a remarkable portrait of where we were, gastronomically, as a country. And even more importantly, they speak volumes about where we have come.

Claiborne and Sokolov were kingmakers. Time magazine once described Claiborne's power in the restaurant world: "When he says good, it is very, very good for the restaurant's business. When he says bad, it can be horrid."

Both men were effete, erudite, well-traveled connoisseurs. (Sokolov was a Harvard- and Oxford-educated classics scholar, for cripes sake.) These attributes alone, while lovely, do not impart obscene power. What does, however, is these gentlemen's connoisseurship relative to that of the rest of the American dining public in the 1960s and 1970s: a bunch of rubes, duffers all, scared of ethnic food and absurdly charmed by post-WWII convenience foods. (What can't cream of mushroom soup do?!) Just as Harold Schonberg, fellow New York Timeser, held sway over the country's opinions of orchestral music and opera, Claiborne and Sokolov told us what was tasty. And we listened.

The people's art

Go to the opera in 2013 and look around at the audience: monied, largely white, virtually no one under retirement age. Now go to the latest red-hot restaurant: young people, old people, diversity. As an art, opera is perhaps more rarefied than it was 100 years ago, its critics in an infinitesimal pool of cognoscenti. Assuming that at its apogee it's an art, cooking is one for the proletariat. The average American eats out five times a week — serious patrons of the art.

McNamee's book, while not a memoir, is based on unprecedented access to Claiborne's personal papers as well as interviews with his contemporaries. As in his previous food-related book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, the author has a knack for pinpointing just what his subject gave the world. Claiborne brought us the salad spinner and the Cuisinart; he championed unknown geniuses like Marcella Hazan and Virginia Lee. But even more notably, he taught us what the rules were. And then he taught us to break them.

At Swiss hotelier school, Claiborne memorized 62 different consommes, 49 recipes for tournedos of beef, 99 veloute variations. This was classical, Escoffier-mandated French cuisine. It was what great food meant in this country. But Claiborne, and then Sokolov, introduced subversive, pared-back nouvelle cuisine and then a host of other cuisines entirely. Francophiles both (Sokolov even a fluent francophone), they nonetheless saved the dining public from the tyranny of rigidly classical French food.

And here we are now. Korean tacos, Italian-Asian fusion, anything goes. Restaurant critics are no longer the undisputed arbiters of proper veloutes. Partly because there aren't a lot of veloutes and partly because the whole idea of "proper" is bankrupt. If it works, let it rip.

And in this new loosey-goosey world, the Internet, with sites like Yelp, Urban Spoon and Chowhound, has created a meritocracy. Everyone can render a verdict on restaurants, and those verdicts are increasingly meaningful as diners eat out more, creating more educated eaters and a larger sample size. Increasingly, there is rough justice: If 200 diners weigh in on a place, you start to get a fairly accurate picture of its food, service, ambiance and price point.

Am I talking myself out of a job?

Someone has to do it

Sokolov didn't stay long at the Times before moving on to writing books, as well as columns at Natural History and the Wall Street Journal. Claiborne chafed after just a couple of years on the job; John Hess, who followed Sokolov, lasted less than a year. Even at the best American newspaper in the best American food city, it's a grueling job.

Yes, Claiborne notoriously did things like jet off to Paris for a $4,000 dinner he shared with French chef Pierre Franey. (It made the front page.) Sounds cush. But the slog of eating day in and day out in places not of your own choosing, working through dozens of entrees, trying to suss out ingredients and techniques — it all gives the restaurant critic context that even avid amateur diners seldom manage.

From the reign of Henri Soulé's Le Pavillon in New York in the 1950s and 1960s to the rise of Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz and even Guy Fieri, we've been through the most transformative period in culinary history. Critics still write reviews that make an impact. (Current New York Times critic Pete Wells' review of Guy Fieri's New York restaurant is one of the funniest things written in 2012.) But more importantly, they provide the framework, background and even the vocabulary with which the dialogue about food continues.

Claiborne, writes McNamee, "had virtually created his field. Not so many years before, not so many people had cared very much about food."

What Claiborne and Sokolov did was start the conversation.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

Steal the Menu:

A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

By Raymond Sokolov

Alfred A. Knopf,

256 pages, $25.95

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance

By Thomas McNamee

Simon & Schuster, 339 pages, $16

Review: Food critics Raymond Sokolov, Craig Claiborne got us talking 05/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 12:25pm]

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