The most delicious meal I never had was a late summer afternoon interview with Craig Claiborne at his pied-a-terre in midtown Manhattan in 1990.

I was a green food editor from a Midwestern newspaper, he was an esteemed cookbook author and the retired food editor and critic of the New York Times, a few weeks away from celebrating his 70th birthday as guest of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. A hundred friends were flying in to toast the occasion, at which a dozen top European chefs were cooking.

Culinary legends don't settle for mere cake and ice cream.

I had hoped for a tour of Claiborne's kitchen and a taste of something he made himself. Instead, over cocktails, the playful Mississippi native dished up course after course of food gossip.

Claiborne, who died Saturday at 79, loved Haagen-Daz ice cream and chile con carne. He hated every minute of restaurant reviewing, though he was among the first writers to take that form of criticism seriously, with multiple visits and informed opinion culminating in star ratings.

His spacious abode in East Hampton--site of celebrity- studded parties and a restaurant- quality kitchen replete with a tandoor oven--was in stark contrast to his apartment in the city. All a visitor saw was a two-burner stove, a heavy floor scale upon which the owner weighed himself every morning and a wall covered with copper pots and pans. There wasn't a speck of food in sight. "You'll see a kitchen that's never been used," Claiborne said. "I have it for the photographers," he added with a grin.

As word of his death in a New York hospital spread over the weekend, friends, fans and colleagues--many of whose careers were launched by the generous editor--remembered Claiborne's impact on the American table.

"He heralded a new way of cooking" in the United States, Julia Child recalled from her home in Santa Barbara. "Before that, it was Jell-O with diced marshmallows, really terrible."

Child was an unknown commodity when Claiborne wrote about her cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in 1961--the same year Claiborne's definitive "The New York Times Cookbook" made its debut. A staple on every serious home cook's shelf, his book went on to sell over a million copies.

"They were two stunning cookbooks that brought elaborate, exotic food into American homes," says Phyllis Richman, food critic of The Washington Post. Thanks to Claiborne, "things commonplace elsewhere became commonplace here."

"He gave us a great send-off" in the food pages of the Times, Child says. "It was tremendously useful and nice. He gave us legitimacy."

Of his debut at the Times in 1957, Claiborne said, "I was in a good place at a good time." Then, "the public was so naive that anything you printed was new."

Trained at the Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association in Switzerland after a stint in the Korean War, Claiborne had the benefit of formal restaurant training, partnered with a nose for news, that most of his peers lacked.

Claiborne introduced readers to a who's who of culinary greats, including Mexican authority Diana Kennedy, Indian expert Madhur Jaffrey, Italian guru Marcella Hazan and a legion of chefs, both foreign and domestic.

Among his discoveries were Chez Panisse and Alice Waters, who praised him as "one of the fathers of the cooking we now eat." Another beneficiary was Patrick O'Connell, chef-owner of the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., and one of the subjects of a Claiborne series on American chefs. "It was like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," says O'Connell of the first of Claiborne's several visits. "He was an undisputed authority." And a precise recipe tester: As was his habit, Claiborne brought his hefty typewriter into the kitchen of the restaurant, to record everything that went into O'Connell's cooking.

To the end, Claiborne never forgot his southern roots, his love of a good time, or his sense of humor.

When O'Connell last saw him, at a party in his honor at Tavern on the Green in New York, a sickly Claiborne was confined to a wheelchair.

"How are you doing?" the chef asked.

Claiborne perked up. "I'd be doing a lot better if you got me a double bourbon on the rocks."

CAPTION: Craig Claiborne in 1990.