Sunday, April 24, 2011

Food for thought: The Beard-Child-Claiborne-Waters culinary revolution

Presented to the Club by Ronald Trabulsi on Monday evening, April 11, 2011

In the last 50 years there has been a revolution in this country. It has been non-violent, but certainly exciting, spirited, and dramatic. It has affected each of us in either major or minor ways, but no one has been immune.

I’m talking about the change in America’s food and eating habits.

Fast food is one branch of this upheaval. But the other direction – and one more interesting to me – has been the enormous increase in the variety of food we now take for granted. An orange in your Christmas stocking (perhaps along with a lump of coal if you had been involved in some misdeeds) was a treat – now we have grapefruit and oranges year round. Salsa and sushi were unknown. Now salsa has surpassed ketchup as America’s most popular condiment and sushi is even in Pittsfield, Lenox, and Great Barrington.

Butter used to be, well, just butter. Now it comes in a variety of butterfat contents. And one writer describes being at a salt tasting, of all things. “The waiter, like some particularly elegant cocaine dealer, gently spooned nine mini-mounds onto a little board, each salt a different hue and consistency from the next – one as fine and white as baking powder, another dark and chunkily crystalline.” This is a long way from the all-purpose Morton’s Salt we grew up with.

It is, in short, a great time to be an eater. And how often do we get to say something as unreservedly upbeat as that? We often complain that things aren’t as good as they used to be: movies, music, baseball, political talk – but food is one area of American life where things just continue to improve.

If we’re cooking at home, we have a greater breadth and higher quality of ingredients available to us. If we’re eating out, we have more options open to us.

How did we get to this point? We learned there is more to the restaurant world than Schrafft’s or Howard Johnson’s and food became part of our popular culture – with even its own TV channel.

The consensus seems to be that it began with James Beard who developed a successful catering company in New York called Hors d’Oeuvres, Inc., starting in 1939. His mother, who ran a boarding house in Portland, Oregon, was a superb cook and he learned from her. He came to New York wanting to be an actor in the theater, but had no success. He did, however, have a highly cultivated palate and was a great charmer of the people he often cooked dinner for and who were able to give him and his catering business significant publicity.

The success of his catering company led to a series of cooking book contracts. Along with the recipes – and probably more important – he defended throughout his books the pleasures of real cooking and fresh ingredients. He wrote a lot about outdoor grilling at home and that men could legitimately be involved in home cooking. His writing was appealing and his considerable girth made him non-threatening to the home-based, non-professional cook. 

To Beard, cooking and eating comprised a fulfilling cultural pastime, to be pursued as ardently as golf, opera, or any other activity that aroused one’s passions. His enthusiasm was contagious and he was read widely.

At the same time in New York the 1939 World’s Fair along with World War Two led to several notable French chefs arriving ultimately to open a remarkable group of top-tier classic French restaurants. Le Pavillion, the Colony, Le Cirque, La Caravelle, to name a few, based on 18th Century French traditional recipes and techniques to some degree interpreted by Escoffier in Paris and London. Another was the Brussels where some 60 years ago a very indulgent bachelor uncle of mine and his long-legged very glamorous to me lady friend introduced me to smoked eel. To this day I still enjoy it when I can find it. I courted Ann while I was living in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone and we frequented a French bistro on Third Avenue in Manhattan where the order of the day was piles of sautéed frog’s legs and match-thin French fries along with a bottle of wine. Each of these restaurants generated others as employees trained at these left to open their own establishments.

Post-war America, partly because of GI’s coming back from Europe, considered classic French cooking to be the highest form of culinary art. Chuck Williams, the founder of the kitchenware store Williams-Sonoma, writes as he completed his Air Force service and built himself a house in the then undiscovered hinterland of Sonoma, California, that "The magic that France had at the time was felt by so many of us. It was roaming on the side streets of Paris and eating in the small mom-and-pop restaurants. It was the haunting music and songs sung by Edith Piaf that I heard everywhere. It was the wonderful pastry and chocolate shops in every block, the butcher shops, the crepe and waffle stands, the standup bars where you stopped for an espresso, a café au lait, or a cognac. I wanted to capture the magic of Paris in my shop and make it completely French."

Also enthusiastic about all things French was a young, 6-foot, 2-inch, Smith College graduate from Pasadena, California, named Julia McWilliams. She spent the war years working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor of the CIA) in Washington and then in India on a tea plantation the OSS had commandeered as its base of operations from which to plot attacks on the Japanese. It was there that she met Paul Child a cartographer for the OSS.

Child was a good six inches shorter than she, but he loved to cook and dine out and was very knowledgeable about cooking. Eventually they were assigned to Kunming in China where Julia became interested in food and the various Chinese cuisines.

Back in the United States the couple was married in 1946 and soon left for Paris where Paul Child worked for the State Department implementing the Marshall Plan. During the decade they were in France, Julia set about learning all things French which eventually included enrollment at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. Her teacher had apprenticed under Escoffier himself. At night she often cooked for dinner the dishes the class had made that day.

Meanwhile, back in New York, a young man, and the third member of our founding trio, named Craig Claiborne – also with a mother who ran a boarding house and cooked extraordinarily well – arrived fresh from a stint at a Swiss hotel school. By luck he got himself a short-lived job writing for Gourmet magazine which turned out to be mostly useful for the people he met and the connections he made. One of these led him to an interview at The New York Times which was looking for a food editor but had always had a woman in the position. It had apparently not occurred to the Times that a man could do the job.

He was eventually hired and began a twenty-year association with the paper that was destined to change America’s food culture. He started at a time when post-war Americans were ready to improve their kitchens and cooking. They were ready to go beyond food as “maintenance” and explore new ideas. GI’s brought back familiarity with ethnic cooking as well as French Cuisine. And Claiborne was ready to lead the way by treating food as more than just recipes. It was a journalistic responsibility to discover what was going on in America’s more creative kitchens. He wrote about home cooks as well as professionals. He introduced the idea of restaurant reviews that could make or break a place.

The food world reaction was one of awe. Here was a man writing about food and cooking with the same intellect and rigor that the Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote about Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett.

An interesting side note is that in 1961 when Claiborne wanted to do a cookbook using the Times name, the paper thought a cookbook would be so minor that Claiborne was given the rights to use the Times name with no obligation. The New York Times Cookbook became a best seller and sold more than three million copies.

Going back to Julia Child, who we left in Paris at the Cordon Bleu, her next adventure was to open a cooking school in Paris to educate Americans, who were wealthy wives brought abroad by their husbands’ jobs in business or government, about French cooking. Along with running the school with two French collaborators, the idea of a cookbook for Americans emerged.

This became Mastering the Art of French Cooking after a decade of recipe testing and adapting French measurements, methods, and ingredients to the American kitchen. 

The success of the book lies in both its multi-year meticulous preparation and Child’s charismatic publicizing of it. There is probably no other cookbook in American history that better combines breadth, thoroughness of explanation, culinary authenticity, distinctive authoritarian voice, and reliability. Whereas Escoffier’s book assumed the reader knew the fundamentals of French cookery, Julia assumed the cook knew nothing. The recipe for a basic omelet runs seven pages and has six illustrations.

Alfred Knopf published the book in 1961. By this time Julia and her husband had returned to the United States and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shortly after the book was published Craig Claiborne gave it a rave review in the Times calling it the most comprehensive, laudable, and monumental work on French cooking and predicting it would endure as the definitive work for non-professionals. James Beard gave the book his blessing and he and Child became great friends. Julia often was a guest instructor at Beard’s school which was at his town house in Manhattan. Beard was often a guest at the Childs’ getaway home in Provence, spending entire days in the kitchen with Julia.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking went through five printings. Its publication coincided with Jacqueline Kennedy’s time in the White House and her hiring of a French chef by the name of Rene Verdon. The Times, now the lifestyle manual of culturally correct postwar upper middlebrows, played Verdon’s hiring on page one with a article by Claiborne that described Verdon’s first official assignment, a luncheon for the British prime minister Harold Macmillan, that included trout cooked in Chablis, fillet of roast beef au jus, and artichoke bottoms Beaucaire – filled with a fondue of tomatoes simmered in butter. French food was now fashionable – and to some extent competitive because now you could really astonish your dinner party guests.

Kitchenware suddenly attained the status of fetish objects in certain American circles. You just had to have a Le Creuset casserole dish and a crepe pan the size of a manhole cover. Williams-Sonoma was now “the source” and was located in the heart of San Francisco.

To add to the excitement, WGBH TV station in Boston started “The French Chef” cooking show starring, who else, Julia Child. For the better part of ten years she was a cooking instructor to America and quickly became the most popular attraction on WGBH. The show was picked up by public television stations throughout the country.

So while Craig Claiborne was dominating the print media with his New York Times columns reviewing restaurants and providing his readers with recipes for such dishes Spanish paella and other ethnic foods, Julia was the television personality keeping America’s cooks (and eaters) focused on whatever was this week’s recipe. She criss-crossed the country for book signings and cooking demonstrations.

But it rapidly became apparent, as attention to food increases, that the quality of American ingredients was sadly deficient.

We had only parsley, no chives, said one French chef. He also pointed out the experience of needing special mushrooms and having them arrive in cans from Germany instead of fresh. It turned out they were grown in Oregon and because there seemed to be no market in the states for them, they were shipped to Germany for canning and then sent back to the U.S. when ordered. By this time they barely resembled the original. So professional chefs were frustrated.

Home cooks were becoming totally dependent on the large supermarket chains that were springing up – particularly in the suburbs, aided by the increase in car ownership, the advances in refrigeration, and even the introduction of the shopping cart. The old butcher, baker, or greengrocer shops were becoming obsolete.

One food columnist wrote that she found her local Grand Union supermarket to be at once disturbingly alien while also marvelously convenient. The pre-butchered chicken parts in cellophane-sheathed white Styrofoam containers, she wrote, arranged in refrigerator cases and illuminated by florescent lights were something out of a science-fiction movie. The chicken pieces lying there were dead in their little coffins. Bread, it was noted, looked and tasted like facial tissue.

By the early seventies out on the West Coast, a group of culinary-minded young radicals had gotten mad as hell about the supermarket state, and they decided they were not going to take it any more.

Many of them had come together on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and had been the prime movers of the radical Free Speech Movement that demonstrated and for a while took over the Berkeley campus in the 1960’s. Gradually their counter-culture philosophy came to include a serious disagreement with the giant agricultural businesses and supermarkets that were determining the American diet. There came to be a feeling that just because you were a revolutionary didn’t mean your idea of a good meal should be Chef Boyardee ravioli reheated in a dog dish – as Alice Waters who went on to fame as the owner of the exemplary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley put it.

She and others encouraged small providers (what we now see as “organic” growers) and co-operative grocery stores throughout the California Bay area. Farmers’ markets, brimming with fresh, local produce became regular fixtures. Interestingly, this winter on Sanibel Island off Fort Myers in the Gulf of Mexico, there was a weekly farmers’ market for the first time. Sanibel has always been deprived of fresh produce, which is silly considering all the agriculture nearby. But it was only this year that the Food Revolution arrived and incidentally included wonderful fresh greens that we don’t get here and marvelous fresh Gulf shrimp that were never frozen. It has been said that the fresh food movement was perhaps the Berkeley counter-cultural movement’s greatest and most lasting triumph. 

The emphasis on high quality ingredients spread rapidly throughout the country.

The Spartan, traditional health foods stores were supplemented by colorful, bountiful markets with organically grown produce and fresh baked goods. Whole Foods market became a national chain. The ranks of specialty coffee companies grew, such as Starbucks, which started in Washington. Coffee and activism were a good fit; most coffee beans came from Third World countries where poverty and human-rights violations were problems, and many specialty coffee drinkers were college students who were eager to be politically engaged. 

But it wasn’t just the politically conscious, back-to-mother earth foodies who discovered the power of upscale, high quality food, it was also the next generation Italian grocers and Jewish delicatessen men who saw a world beyond the small markets of their fathers. Balducci’s, Zabar’s, and DeLuca’s in New York are examples. They set out to re-educate the American palate. The stores became destinations for specialty foods. Guido’s here in the Berkshires is part of the same trend.

The food revolution is here and it is continuing. We can watch Price Chopper supermarket on Route 7 and Guido’s virtually next door expanding to go head to head to capture not only the shopper’s dollar but also his or her participation in this new world of food.

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