Diet for a Small City

“… learning began with unlearning these powerful myths.”

“I knew I couldn’t go on as I was…”

“There is no change without risk.” 

“My message seemed so obvious it couldn’t be correct, I thought.”

“I thought, ‘We have to have better food.’”

“There should be places with no meat.”

“I didn’t want to eat animals.”

“I look back at a time when we had it right… when we didn’t settle for something that wasn’t as good just because it was quicker and cheaper.”

All of these statements could have come from either of the women who delivered only some of them. The first four lines were written into the 20th-anniversary edition of Frances Moore Lappé’s influential book Diet for a Small Planet, first published in 1971. The second four were stated in an interview last week with Claire Criscuolo, the highly visible owner of Claire’s Corner Copia, which she co-founded with her beloved late husband Frank. Claire’s, of course, is the popular vegetarian/organic food spot at the corner of Chapel and College Streets, and is fresh off celebrating its 40th birthday last month.

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There’s a sense in which New Haveners have Ms. Lappé to thank for their 40 years with Claire’s. “Diet for a Small Planet really changed my life,” Criscuolo says. She read it while studying nursing at the University of Bridgeport, where the elegant, interdisciplinary book’s nutritional and environmental bombshells—concluding that eating meat is not only inessential for human health, it actually increases the risk of developing major diseases while wreaking havoc on the environment at large—struck a nerve. Or three. The nutrition angle dovetailed with Criscuolo’s budding career in nursing; the environmental angle engaged Criscuolo’s potent sense of fairness and justice; and so did a consideration Lappé mostly overlooked: the terrible plights of the animals themselves.

Claire’s Corner Copia would prove to be Criscuolo’s vehicle for making change on those fronts. But the restaurant was still years away. First Criscuolo had to earn her nursing degree, which led to a gig as a psychiatric nurse at the Connecticut Mental Health Center right here in New Haven.

It was in fact a homecoming. Criscuolo, who grew up Claire LaPia, was raised on Wooster Street, where her grandfather had a grocery business and her mother spoke Italian at home. After the city eminent-domained the family’s stretch of Wooster, the LaPias moved to East Haven.

All in all, Criscuolo remembers her childhood fondly, and marvels at the differences between then and now. “Most of the moms stayed home. Very few worked outside of the home. Very few had a car of their own. So you walked. You took a bus. And you went to the beach every day in the summer. And you played in the neighborhood and rode your bike to your friend’s house.”

Fast-forwarding a decade or two, she vividly remembers the early days of Claire’s, when the menu, the payroll and the space itself were much smaller—when there was less pressure to stay competitive and, in many ways, more freedom to experiment. “We did things as we went along,” she says, going on to describe a freewheeling, DIY culture. Menu ideas came and went (and still do) according to which proved popular, which you might expect. But 2015 sensibilities have a hard time grasping the lack of red tape in other areas. If, for instance, you wanted to install handicap access to your New Haven eatery in the 1970s, you didn’t check with regulators or apply for a permit. Instead, “You [got] a jackhammer.” If you wanted to expand the restaurant’s interior, as Claire’s eventually did, “You put up a curtain” and just did it, she says. “[The city’s regulatory infrastructure] wasn’t as organized as it is today, and neither were we.”

“It was a fun, wonderful time,” she continues. “[Staff] used to close early once a week and go out for supper together… We were open for shorter hours… We used to actually close for our own break… We would sit at a picnic table in the dining room and eat together.” That’s not possible anymore, she says with more than a touch of regret, because there’s too much going on to just shut things down for an hour in the middle of the day. She worries that she’d lose valued customers if Claire’s weren’t open as often as it is—13 hours a day on weekdays and 12 on weekends.

But her inclination towards positivity is quick to reassert itself, morphing wistful looks into twinkly-eyed smiles. She soon remembers the good things about how Claire’s feels to her today. “It’s interesting and fun,” she says. “I love the energy.”

If you were to ask diners what they like about the energy at Claire’s, they’d probably point right back to her, or to her very loyal staff (many have been there for years and years; the most seasoned among them, Criscuolo estimates, has stuck around for 19), or to their favorite foodstuff. Maybe the latter would be one of Claire’s well-known and indulgent—but not filled with artificial ingredients and chemicals–cake-style desserts, like the Lemon Coconut Loaf with Blueberries. (Filled with real, juicy blueberries and topped by a thin, sweet glaze of icing and generous purpled coconut shavings, the lemon flavor in the loaf I tried was invitingly subtle, like a well-applied perfume.) Someone else’s favorite might be a menu newbie like the sausage-y Vegan Breakfast Sandwich, which is at its best when the spicy vinaigrette tossed with the sandwich’s greens is just on the verge of making a mess.

Diners might also point to the sometimes handwritten notes and affirmations positioned around the place. One reads, “Be kinder than necessary.” Another challenges each of us to “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Another says, “The hand that gives, gathers.”

That last one is clearly positioned with a sense of humor, above the self-busing station where diners gather together their dirty plates and silverware, thus making things a little easier for a harried staff working in a tight space. But it’s equally clear that Claire’s also means the sentiment earnestly, and aims to prove its truth by example.

Claire’s Corner Copia
1000 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8am-9pm, Sat-Sun 9am-9pm
(203) 562-3888
www.clairescornercopia.com

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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