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The Most Famous NYT Food Critic Was From Mississippi

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Most people don’t remember that the most important New York Times food critic, Craig Claiborne, was from Indianola, Mississippi. If you want to know more about this fascinating man, check out his biography, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat. The title is no exaggeration.

Until Craig came around, the NYT food column was about how to make a quick and easy supper for your family. Craig was the first one to start reviewing restaurants. He joined the Navy in his youth, saw the world, and ended up in Europe, where he attended one of the most prestigious Swiss Hotel and Restaurant schools. He live in Europe for quite a while and really knew his stuff.

I love this story, and it illustrates just how good Craig was at his job. It was his lifelong dream to be the NYT food writer and he finally got the gig, but few people knew who he was or the force he would become. He visited a snooty French restaurant in New York City, and of course, they were not impressed with this fellow from Mississippi at all. He ordered a bottle of wine, the waiter brought it to the table, opened it and poured him a glass. Craig took one sip and said, “You brought me the wrong bottle.” The snooty waiter replied that he had ordered a Chateau St Michael, and Craig replied that he had, but that he had ordered a 1956 and what he had been served was the 1958. Without looking at the bottle!

Craig went on to become so powerful and respected that a bad review of a restaurant could close it. But let me take this step further. What was the mistake the waiter made? There are very specific rules in serving wine, as there are about serving and setting a table. If you know your stuff, you know that the waiter was required to show the bottle to Craig before he opened it, just to make sure it was the correct bottle. He was snooty without cause because he did not know how do to his job.

What other rules are there? Serve wine from the right, with the right hand. If you are serving a champagne, the mouth of the bottle should be about three inches from the top of the glass, if it is an old red, the mouth of the bottle should almost touch the rim of the glass and should be poured very slowly to prevent the sediment which has settled to the bottom from being stirred up. 

There are countless other rules that a discriminating diner might find interesting. The basic idea is that if you are enjoying fine dining, you should not just wolf it down but enjoy it to the maximum extent. What a pity it would be if that expensive bottle from Bordeaux you ordered was served cloudy and just a bit gritty. 

If you want to learn more about Claiborne and his experiences as a food critic, like I said, the book’s well worth the read.


Written by Julian Brunt

Julian Brunt is a food and travel writer that has been writing about the food culture of the Deep South for over a decade. He is the eleventh generation of his family to live in the South, grew up in Europe, traveled extensively for the first fifteen years after graduating from the University of Maryland, University College, Heidelberg, Germany. Today, he's a contributor for multiple publications, including Our Mississippi Home. He's also appeared on Gordon Ramsay's television show, "To Hell and Back in 24 Hours."


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