Memphis-born author comes home to sign Craig Claiborne biography

Thomas McNamee

Photo by Handout

Thomas McNamee

Thomas McNamee

Thomas McNamee

A biography of Craig Claiborne by Memphis-born author Thomas McNamee claims we have the 20th-century food writer to thank for rescuing us from bland and canned food.

It's called "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance" (Free Press, $27) and begins with the story behind a story Claiborne wrote for the front page of the New York Times in April 1959. Under the headline "Elegance of Cuisine is on Wane in U.S.," it constituted a declaration of Claiborne's significance in the world he was going to alter.

McNamee will talk and sign his book about the brilliant and complicated restaurant critic and cookbook author at 6 p.m. Monday at The Booksellers at Laurelwood.

McNamee traces Claiborne's fascination with food back to his Delta roots. The second chapter begins provocatively: "Craig Claiborne spent much of his childhood in fear. Any child in the Mississippi Delta had good reason to be afraid." In addition to snakes, wasps, hookworms and dogs on short chains that might break, Claiborne had to worry about early suspicions that he was a "sissy." McNamee believes the isolation Claiborne endured in his early years because of his homosexuality was defining. As a child, he found refuge in the kitchen and the comfortable lap of a woman named Blanche, the head cook in his mother's boardinghouse in Indianola, Miss., which was known for its excellent fare.

McNamee, whose previous books include "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse" and "The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone," lives in San Francisco now. He was born in Memphis in 1947, grew up in Whitehaven and graduated from Whitehaven High School. In a telephone interview, he said the landscape of his subject's youth was within easy reach of his imagination.

"Claiborne was born in 1920 in Sunflower (Miss.) in the Delta; my father was born in 1913 and grew up in Tutwiler. Claiborne's family was pretty much broke -- there was a crash in 1920, and his father never recovered from that -- and my father's family wasn't. Otherwise, culturally, it was a world that I knew. .... It's really a foreign culture, quite isolated."

Memphis readers who take pleasure in coming across the city's name in print will find this book liberally garnished with regional references. After Claiborne realized that writing about food was his destiny, he made the crucial decision to train at a professional school for hotel keepers in Switzerland. Though he told the story of that decision two ways, in both versions he said the manager of The Peabody hotel in Memphis was responsible for recommending the course.

The people McNamee believes were closest to Claiborne over his lifetime were the artist Edward Giobbi, who taught at the old Memphis Academy of Art in the early 1960s and exhibited in Memphis through the mid-1990s, and his wife, the former Elinor Turner of Memphis.

"In Elinor he found a deep cultural kinship -- for Memphis is historically much more closely related to the Mississippi Delta than to any part of Tennessee," McNamee writes of the Claiborne-Giobbi connection.

Claiborne died in 2000. In 2009, McNamee attended a Craig Claiborne "powwow" in New York City organized by the New School and the Southern Foodways Alliance of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at University of Mississippi.

"This meeting threw together all the people who had known Craig and the people who worked with him at the Times," said McNamee, who had written about Claiborne previously for Saveur magazine. He expected to find "just a history story" when he attended the gathering on a writing assignment, but he was surprised.

"I like complexity, I like to be confused and find my way through the wilderness of problems and things I don't understand," McNamee said. "I realized at this conference that no one understood him, least of all himself. He was a man of tremendous complexity. (The story) would have to be about who he was as a person, his demons and the inner working of his mind and his soul. That's what drew me, the challenge of understanding this very difficult man."

OFFICE JOKES

The cartoonist Sam Ray has created a niche for himself in the corporate world. A large glass-topped desk is a frequent feature in the foreground of his single-panel "Business As Usual" cartoons, a series he launched in The Commercial Appeal's Business section in 2009.

Sam Ray

Sam Ray

Ray has collected some of his favorites in "People Sitting at Desks and Other Strange Behaviors" ($10), which he will sign at 6 p.m. Tuesday at The Booksellers at Laurelwood.

Ray's office world is heavily populated by slump-shouldered, bespectacled males with bald, cone-shaped domes. In one panel, two such hapless creatures stare at a chart marked by a line that lurches precipitously downward. "On the other hand, I've discovered that a highly-paid, management-level white man can learn to sing the blues," one says to the other. An array of creatures -- dogs, rabbits, birds -- make appearances in these offices as well. You'll find a vengeful pig glowering from behind a "Personnel" sign at a wolf. "So, we meet again! Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha!" the pig says.

Cartoons by Ray, a University of Memphis graduate, also have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review and Forbes.

The Booksellers at Laurelwood is at 387 Perkins Road Ext.

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