IN 1958 WHEN CRAIG CLAIBORNE became food editor of The New York Times, food writing even in major papers was a prisoner of the sexist ghetto of the women's pages. When recipes were not can-of-this, can-of-that concoctions, they were likely to be reprints of handouts from organizations like the National Blueberry or Avocado or Lamb Council -- good-hearted, greedy attempts to broaden American tastes in food. Claiborne changed all that.
In 1961 when Claiborne published The New York Times Cookbook, cookbooks seemed so unimportant in the world of journalism that Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the newspaper's publisher, simply gave Claiborne as a gift complete rights to the title. Cookbooks in those day usually divided roughly in half. Fifty percent of the recipes were for food; 50 percent for cookies, cakes, pies, candies and other sweet little old grandmotherly confections. Claiborne cut desserts to 25 percent and instead of producing an encyclopedic book he wrote one with the unspoken but readily evident footnote: nothing in here but what I like to eat, and like to cook. The personal cookbook was born.
In 1963 when Claiborne began writing a weekly restaurant column, restaurant reviews were largely a function of the advertising department in most papers, either written by the salesmen themselves or simply reprints of restaurant PR. Claiborne wrote, as far as I know, the first and for many years the only critical restaurant reviews to appear in this country -- and in doing so he essentially invented a new profession. Every major paper in the country now has a restaurant column modeled more or less on Claiborne's.
Having written a cookbook that changed the way we eat, made one profession honest, invented another, and helped in his own way to fight sexism in journalism, Claiborne has now written his memoirs.
The book is by turns funny, useful, fascinating and disconcerting. Reviewing it is difficult, and almost unnecessary, like reviewing a new book by a Nobel Prize winner. Fans are going to buy it no matter what; those who have never heard of the writer will skip over the review wondering what all the fuss is about.
The easiest way for me to approach the book is from the back. It ends with "My 100 Favorite Recipes," culled by Claiborne from the estimated 8,000 printed during his years as food editor. The recipes are in the same simple and carefully measured style that Claiborne has made the standard of American cookbooks.
Before that there is "My Recommended Cookbook Library" -- a list of Claiborne's favorite books that is, with some odd omissions (notably Richard Olney) an extremely clear and comprehensive guide to the best in ethnic, American, French and international cooking -- from The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam to Bayou Cuisine published by St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Indianola, Mississippi.
Finally, there is Claiborne's life, which is full of great hilarity, an extraordinary amount of work, a lot of alcoholism and real sorrow. Claiborne's stories of early child molestation by his own father, of his struggle to disentangle himself from his mother's over-possessive love, are told in a prose that occasionally seems to stumble as Claiborne tries to come to terms with what was a lonely and miserable childhood. This makes the first part of the book fascinating but uncharacteristically joyless. It's odd for an old fan of Claiborne's writing not to see him bubbling with information and enthusiasm but instead dealing with childhood amnesia and forlorn memories.
As Claiborne grows, the book grows too -- and so does his distance and control of the material. He tells of his brief engagement to a woman he met at a small buffet in New Jersey where "among those present were numerous men discreetly involved in loves that, in that faraway era 'dared not speak its name.' " Claiborne found himself "interested in and slightly bewildered" -- and engaged to a woman who knew and apparently accepted his sexual inclinations. The story of the end of the engagement "to my bride-to-be's infinite good fortune" and to Claiborne's own, is a sad but quietly funny story, a lucky though rueful escape. Maybe that's the difference between great journalism and great confessional writing: all the humor and skill and objectivity of the one only get in the way of the desperate sincerity of the other.
When Claiborne finally meets Pierre Franey and begins the long professional association that has lasted to this day, we feel a kind of relief that from here on life will be a succession of recipes, great chefs, grand picnics, exploding wine bottles that destroy nothing more important than an ermine coat. It is a life where, as Claiborne says, "for years I have kept a journal of menus and guests who have dined in my home. . . . Thumbing through . . . those wine-stained pages I find among the appetizers . . . mousse of pigeon, taramosalata, hog's head cheese, smoked salmon, a terrine of venison and liver, a hot p.at,e in crust with beurre blanc . . ." A great deal of great food and drink greatly appreciated and grandly described -- the kind of writing that has changed the way we think about good food, and the good life, forever.