2010 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Christiane Lauterbach
Presented October 23, by the Southern Foodways Alliance
Two years back the Southern Foodways Alliance renamed our Lifetime Achievement Award in honor of Craig Claiborne, the Sunflower, Mississippi, native who--during his three decade tenure as both restaurant critic and dining page editor at the New York Times--transformed how journalists review and write about restaurants.
Tonight we bestow that award on a member of Claiborne’s immediate fraternity, a restaurant critic who has been practicing her craft for more than 30 years, in the city that has long been our region’s financial and cultural capital: Atlanta, Georgia.
“If you avoid foods that are strange to you, unimaginable culinary experiences will pass you by, as the cart wends its way to another part of the room.”
That line, from a May 1984 review of the Atlanta dim sum house Empress of China III, summarizes the leitmotif of Knife & Fork, the pioneering Atlanta restaurant newsletter where the review ran.
This publication would be inclusive. And intellectually curious. This publication would train its eye on all people, and on all sorts of foods.
Back in the early 1980s--a time when restaurant critics and restaurant owners were often cozy--Christiane Lauterbach threw elbows and spoke truths.
What’s more, she claimed an aesthetic that would sustain her.
A few months back Angie Mosier–SFA outgoing board president--and I were talking about Christiane. Angie described her aesthetic as punk. That’s punk as in minimalist. Punk as in insurgent. Punk as in not beholden by societal norms. Punk as in unconventional. Punk as in Thoreau’s idea of stepping to the beat of your own drummer, however measured or far away.
By those measures Knife & Fork is punk. It maintains no Web site. It has no online repository of past reviews. No Twitter feed is accessible.
A native of Paris, France, who came to Atlanta for love--Christiane brought an expansive outlook to her Atlanta beat. She honed that outlook during her Parisian childhood.
When I asked her once what she did as a child, she told me, “I had a Metro card.”
That childhood in Paris, spent wandering the city, looking and watching, served her well as a writer. She can read place. She can read people.
Early on, Christiane understood that Atlanta was rapidly becoming an international city.
She was on the front lines of reporting that transmogrification.
So new was so-called ethnic cookery when Christiane began to write about the scene, that--in a three star review of a Japanese restaurant on Buford Highway--she took pains to describe a tuna roll as “cylinders of rice enclosing small pieces of tuna, the whole wrapped in seaweed.”
Writing in Knife & Fork, and later Atlanta magazine, Christiane could be cutting: In a two star review of Empress of China III on Peachtree Road, she wrote that, “Chicken feet curl in little dishes like escapees from a Russian folk tale.” Meanwhile, at Isadora’s the sashimi, she wrote, “looks like something one would fix for a dearly beloved cat on special occasions.”
At Kowloon, she wrote of oysters, stir-fried with scallions and ginger, that “may result in gagging noises all around the table, hands clapped to mouths, and desperate, eye-darting searches for spitting receptacles.”
When she thought the food worthy, she lavished praise.
In 1987, in a three star review, she wrote, “If you can imagine a ballet in midair, consisting solely of hands and fingers performing a series of delicate yet strong movements in regular succession, you’ll have some idea how chef-owner Yukio Watanbe crafts sushi.”
From Christiane, born-and-raised Atlantans learned that Indians–as well as Southerners--fried okra. From Christiane, Atlantans learned to savor barbacoa de cabeza with a glass of horchata. From Christiane, Atlanta learned to embrace its promise as an international city.
For her anthropological documentation of the evolving Atlanta restaurant scene, for her work as cultural interlocutor and sage critic, the SFA bestows its 2010 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award on Christiane Lauterbach of Atlanta, Georgia. In honor of her work, the SFA has commissioned a portrait by Blair Hobbs of Oxford, Mississippi.