Craig Claiborne, 79, a retired food editor and restaurant critic of the New York Times who promoted a revolution in the way Americans cook, enjoy and think about the things they eat, died Jan. 22 in Manhattan. No cause of death was given.
Mr. Claiborne, a son of the Mississippi Delta who first experienced great cooking in his mother's boardinghouse, was trained in the techniques of classic French cuisine at the professional school of the Swiss Hotel Association. He went to work for the Times in 1957. He was the first male food editor and, he said, the first professionally trained restaurant critic in U.S. journalism.
When he began, American food was largely a meat-and-potatoes affair. Mr. Claiborne set about changing that. In countless columns and more than 20 books over the next three decades, he introduced his readers to the gastronomic wonders of the world--first to the glories of France, then to the treasures of the rest of Europe and Latin America and the subtleties of the Far East and the Indian subcontinent.
With style and gusto he told his readers how to make things, where to find them, how they should look and smell, and how to serve and eat them. By the time he retired in 1988, the country had undergone a gastronomic transformation. What had once seemed exotic was commonplace.
Mr. Claiborne's first book was "The New York Times Cookbook," which appeared in 1961, and his last was "Elements of Etiquette: A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World," which came out in 1992. Books in between included "Classic French Cookery" for Time/Life Books in 1970, "The Chinese Cook Book," with Virginia Lee, in 1972 and five books with his friend and colleague Pierre Franey.
News about food used to be relegated to the "women's pages" of newspapers. Mr. Claiborne made it a matter of general interest. Sometimes, as when he reported that Jacqueline Kennedy had hired a French chef for the White House or when he reported on a $4,000 dinner for two he and Franey had eaten in Paris, he made the front page.
He traveled to all the continents in search of stories. In the closing days of the Vietnam War, he reported from that country on its cuisine to the sound of artillery fire. He went to Point Barrow, Alaska, to sample whale.
Mr. Claiborne brought to restaurant criticism the same rigorous standards and knowledge as other critics brought to art or music. Many newspapers across the country followed suit by getting knowledgeable critics of their own.
While Mr. Claiborne was best known for his descriptions of fabulous meals in famous places, he also was interested in everyday establishments. His guiding principle was that "the most important two qualities about food are taste and texture," and he was pleased to give credit wherever he thought it was due. Thus he gave the Chock full o'Nuts chain of lunch-counter restaurants in New York one of his highest ratings.
Mr. Claiborne's greatest contribution was introducing his readers to foods and ways of cooking that they may never have imagined. "The New York Times Cook Book" was the first widely read cookbook in the United States that was truly international in scope. Not only did it have recipes for roast beef and New England clam chowder, it also told how to prepare boeuf Bourguignon, the French beef stew with wine and mushrooms and bacon, and paella, one of Spain's gastronomic gifts to the world. The book sold well over 1 million copies and remains a standard reference in countless households.
Craig Claiborne was born in Sunflower, Miss. During World War II, he served in the Navy in the Pacific. His introduction to international cuisine came during an extended trip to France after the war. In 1955, he graduated from l'Ecole Hoteliere de la Societe Suisse des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland, before starting his career as a food writer.
In an interview in 1987, Mr. Claiborne recalled the progress of the nation's culinary development after World War II--American to French to Asian to Italian to Caribbean to Californian and back. After all his travels, he had concluded, he said, that American cooking was the equal of any.
"We're discovering," he said, "that it's an incredible cuisine."