Summer Reading

Whether you’re on the dock, beach or back deck, summer is the best time to relax with a good book. I devoured these two biographies of men who had a huge impact on the world of food today.

1. The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee (2012 Free Press), $30.

When Craig Claiborne joined the New York Times as food editor in 1957, his articles were buried in the section derisively know as the “women’s pages”. Restaurant reviews didn’t exist, chefs were not celebrities and lettuce meant iceberg. This culinary wasteland is hard to imagine in the age of Yelp, Top Chef and food truck tweet-ups.

Through hard work, good timing and a seemingly unlimited budget, Claiborne became a pioneering food journalist. He created the starred restaurant review and introduced his readers to new cuisines, ingredients and techniques. His praise also helped launch the careers of seminal cookbook authors Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey and Diana Kennedy. Quite simply, Claiborne got Americans excited about food.

Claiborne had his demons: he struggled with depression and alcoholism, and was completely estranged from his mother. While his life may not have had the happiest of endings, his tremendous influence lives on. Thanks to Thomas McNamee, Claiborne gets his much needed due.

2. Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky, (2012 Doubleday), $30.

In the 1920s, frozen food had a bad name for good reason: the slow process by which it was frozen turned most foods mushy and unappetizing after they were thawed. While Clarence “Bob” Birdseye was trapping in Labrador, he noticed something that went against this grain: freshly caught fish frozen instantly by the icy Arctic air maintained their quality even months later. When the inventor returned home to Gloucester, Massachusetts, he began tinkering with a process to quick-freeze food. After forming Birds Eye Frosted Foods, he was bought out in 1929 by Postum Cereal Company, which would eventually become General Foods. While Birdseye became a rich man from over 200 patents, he seemed to be driven more by intellectual curiosity than monetary gain.

The author of Cod, Salt, and The Big Oyster, Kurlansky covers another curious facet of food history with this engaging biography. It will be hard to eat another shrimp or frozen pea without thinking of Mr. Birdseye.

For more great foodie books, see Amy Rosen’s roundup.

Photo credits:
1. The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance, Free Press, photography by Sam Abell
2. Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, Doubleday, photography by Pinnacle Foods

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