Craig Claiborne established his taste for the impeccable in 1961 when, four years after becoming the New York Times food editor, he published “The New York Times Cook Book.” The recipes commenced with caviar and foie gras, then moved on to lobster en Bellevue parisienne with aspic-coated medallions.
In contrast, Claiborne’s biography, “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat,” by Thomas McNamee, is a big juicy dish bubbling with scandals and rivalries, thickened with oft-told secrets, chock full of random bits as if a boxful of mementos had been upended into the stew.
Dig in, and it is likely to persuade you that this Clark Kent of a food editor really did exert superpowers on the cultural life of 20th-century America. There was no such thing as a restaurant critic in the late 1950s, when Claiborne won his long campaign to be hired by the Times, says McNamee. That may be arguable, but there is no doubt that Claiborne brought a new level of professionalism to critiques. He also introduced the techniques and ingredients of the outside world, particularly France, to the American home cook.
You thought Julia Child did that? Yes, but Claiborne was the one who brought her nationwide attention — a generous act in the cutthroat cookbook world, since her first cookbook was an immediate competitor to his.
A Mississippi boy whose mother ran a boarding house, Claiborne thoroughly prepared for the job that he coveted. After earning a journalism degree, he attended the world’s foremost hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland, for training in the front-of-the-house as well as the kitchen. Few of the chefs he wrote about were so well trained. He also soon established a close working relationship with Pierre Franey, one of the most respected of New York’s French chefs. Claiborne’s recipes were routinely developed in tandem, Franey doing the cooking and Claiborne the documenting and transcribing, his typewriter on the worktable.
Timing was on Claiborne’s side. He joined the newspaper in time for it for to launch cross-country distribution. Food was also emerging as a hot topic across the country. By 1980 some surveys showed that dining out had overtaken television-watching as a favorite leisure time activity.
Remember the Cajun craze and how it almost wiped out the redfish population? It was Claiborne who introduced Paul Prudhomme to New York and therefore to the cooks of America. He made idols of Paul Bocuse, Jacques Pepin, Alain Ducasse. He interpreted France’s nouvelle cuisine movement for Americans, then the New American Cooking for the rest of the world. He went on to produce two dozen books and revised editions.
Claiborne’s authoritative restaurant reviews served as templates for a generation of critics, but no less did he set new standards for home cooks. Until Claiborne came along, fine dining — food embedded in money, prestige and power — had always been men’s bailiwick, while home cooking was women’s backwater. Claiborne blurred the lines. He championed French sensibility, rare ingredients and professional techniques for food prepared at home. The Times eventually transformed its womens pages into a Living section, and readers upgraded their kitchens to include Cuisinarts and KitchenAids. Sour cream took a back seat to creme fraiche, iceberg lettuce to radicchio. Claiborne also unearthed world-class talent in home kitchens, coaxing Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedyinto the limelight.
He became the official gateway to culinary fame. I watched it from a box seat. I wrote about Alain Ducasse in The Washington Post. Claiborne soon did the same, and Ducasse rocketed to stardom. But did Claiborne’s power make him happy? Of course not.
However mild-mannered and conventional Claiborne appeared, his bottomless insecurity led him to seek ever more attention. His drinking was beyond measuring. His 1982 autobiography, “A Feast Made for Laughter,” went far afield of great meals and noteworthy rivalries to his relationship with his lonely father after his mother disappeared. Claiborne claimed to have sexually explored his sleeping father night after night, though it would have seemed more a confession and less a boast if he’d resisted such language as “the throttle of his lust” and “warm waves of ecstasy.”
Nevertheless, the book was launched with a typically Claiborne extravaganza on his 62nd birthday and the 25th anniversary of his being hired by the Times. The grounds of his East Hampton house were crowded with 400 guests (200 of them invited), who feasted on contributions from three dozen of the country’s great chefs. It was a party to be surpassed only by his 70th birthday, a three-day tribute by European and American star chefs highlighted by a banquet at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, awash in truffles, lobsters, clams, octopus, spit-roasted lambs, wild strawberries, champagnes and imperials (eight bottles each) of sauternes.
Over the next decade Claiborne paid for his feast of a life with heart surgery, strokes, alcoholic withdrawl, a misery of hospitalization. This cultural icon of the 20th century died as soon as the 21st arrived.
He did, indeed, leave the food world changed. By the time Claiborne was eased out of the Times (having threatened to leave and actually done so several times earlier), men were frequently filling food editor desks, and women were as likely as men to be restaurant critics. Arugula was found in brand-name packages of salad greens. French chefs were opening American restaurants.
Claiborne had shaken things up. In fact, he seemed driven to shake things up. He liked being a moving target. “I don’t eat seafood,” he insisted to me at lunch one day. Huh? What about all those lobsters and clambakes and truffled scallops you taught housewives to enjoy?
That was the day Claiborne told me the story of meeting the love of his life. The two were strolling past each other in Manhattan when they locked eyes, and it was love at first sight. The man was married, with six children, and living in Florida. Yet in Claiborne style, the two had trysts over the next two decades in choice hotels throughout the world and dined exquisitely until age and illness parted them. Claiborne left his lover his entire estate. Dying nearly a decade later, his lover left behind no acknowledgment of their even having met.
It’s a dramatic ecounter as related by McNamee, whose disparate earlier books have focused on the chef Alice Waters and grizzly bears. For me Claiborne embellished it beyond credibility with the wife and, I think, a child being present when the two men met. Lovestruck, they dashed off through the nearest door into a lobby, with the stranger declaring he’d never before been drawn to another man,.
I like McNamee’s version better. And I like his book.
THE MAN WHO CHANGED
THE WAY WE EAT
Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance
By Thomas McNamee
Free Press. 339 pp. $27