Share this article

print logo

How Craig Claiborne revolutionized the way we eat

Raise your hand up high if you recognize the name Craig Claiborne. Probably – if you are of a certain age you did just that.

But if you are a wee bit younger, he may not be familiar to you. Claiborne was the food editor and restaurant reviewer at the New York Times from 1957 until he was let go in 1988. He died in 2000 at the age of 79.

He was also the writer of influential cookbooks and lived in an exciting time.

What a world he reported on. Claiborne took over the Times food department when American cuisine, both at home and in restaurants, revolved around beef and processed vegetables, garlic was considered not quite nice and the hunt for fresh ginger, even in Manhattan, could be an all-day thing.

His aim was to transform all that and – lo and behold – the culinary world did change.

He didn't do it all by himself, of course. Thomas McNamee, a fine writer who is not averse to hyperbole, exaggerates the role he did play in this book's title.

But there's no doubt that the man could sense a certain, er, hunger for change among educated, upper middle-class, striving Americans – Times readers, in fact. And he sure could spot a trend. From a thousand miles away.

Unless you were of Italian descent, you didn't know about arugula, for instance (and you called it "rocket" anyway), but Claiborne wrote about it and suddenly a lot of people forgot about iceberg lettuce.

Creme fraiche. Who knew?

Balsamic vinegar became a rage, everyone had to have a Cuisinart – even, for heaven's sake, a salad spinner. And Claiborne created a veritable culinary pantheon. The great – if terrifying – Italian cook Marcella Hazan, soft-spoken Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, trail-blazing restaurateur Alice Waters, even to a certain extent, Julia Child: He wrote about them and they all became famous on their own.

Claiborne was a proficient, although not brilliant, writer, but he had readership and he knew everybody. In the newspaper world, that adds up to power.

You would read this book, I think, just for the picture it presents of what was essentially a revolution in American food ways. But there's a subtext here, too. A dark subtext. Claiborne was an unhappy and complicated man.

Raised in the Mississippi Delta in a family which had lost its money but still had social aspirations, he was possibly abused as a child by his father. McNamee quotes from Claiborne's autobiography, "A Feast Made for Laughter," but the passage is vague. He had what we would now call "issues" with his domineering mother who ran a boarding house – though exactly why is not clear either – and finally cut off the relationship and skipped her funeral. "Being gay was not Craig's greatest offense to Mississippians. It was not coming to his mama's funeral," Jim Abbott, the former editor of the Indianola newspaper, told McNamee.

Claiborne was indeed gay at a time when homophobia was rampant in America; even the Times trod a careful path. He was (or became) an alcoholic; he made and he lost many friends.

The man held a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, was a graduate of the prestigious Professional School of the Swiss Association of Hotel Keepers in Lausanne (and perhaps a little too enamored of French cuisine because of it). He was the very image of a dapper Southern gentleman in appearance.

But underneath was an element of devilment. The orgylike dinners he and his friend/partner, famed chef Pierre Franey, presented at the Claiborne house in East Hampton, Long Island, could result in the columnist playfully grabbing the genitals of a guest, cackling wildly. Supposedly, one guest (Don Hewitt of "60 Minutes" fame) was definitely not amused.

Claiborne liked a prank. He and Franey once indulged in a $4,000 dinner in Paris, courtesy of American Express via a successful bid at a television auction. The meal consisted of 31 courses and nine noble wines, including the requisite fresh foie gras with aspic, Beluga caviar and tiny birds called ortolans that are eaten whole, crunchy bones and all.

In today's world, the excess sounds nauseating – even naive – and when the Times put the story on the front page on Nov. 14, 1975, it did not go over well.

"Crime was bad, unemployment was bad ... the price of oil was out of control ... among the most popular recording artists were Neil Diamond, Tony Orlando, Freddy Fender, Helen Reddy and Barry Manilow. It was a bad time," McNamee explains.

By the time the whole thing was over, the paper had received more than 1,000 letters — 4 to 1 negative. Claiborne always claimed that the Vatican condemned the meal.

Child, though, remained loyal; "What a to-do really and I can see no reason for all that indignant uproar – does anyone object when some rich-bitch buys a $44,000 mink coat or a $35,000 Rolls Royce?" she wrote.

And of course there was all that publicity. American Express was not heard to complain.

Claiborne thought of himself as democratic. His devotion to formal French food was legendary but he liked to search out the food of the common man. He was an exacting guy with a persnickety palate.

(A personal reminiscence: In Buffalo for a March of Dimes dinner, he requested the recipe for chicken wings. But, later in my office at The News, I got the call. "Something is missing here," Claiborne said. Seemed he and Franey were testing in their Long Island kitchens and they were unhappy. Eventually the Times magazine did print the recipe (with attribution) but he added a bit of vinegar. (A local chef friend tells me that tinge of acid would add piquancy to the dish.)

We are told Claiborne set his own course as a restaurant critic. Unlike his peers at the time, he was not influenced by advertisers; he tried to remain anonymous and if he disliked a restaurant, he wouldn't review it. A complete gentleman – in print.

So what would he think of today's gastronomic world where cooking is a competitive sport — where meanness reigns and chefs fight to the death on television?

Wouldn't it be fun to know?

Janice Okun is The News' retired food editor and a current weekly News columnist.


The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance

By Thomas McNamee

Free Press

339 pages,$27