Born in Sunflower, Mississippi, and raised on the region's cuisine in the kitchen of his mother's boarding house.
Claiborne served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Korean War. After deciding that his true passion lay in cooking, he used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend the École hôtelière de Lausanne (Lausanne Hotel School), located in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Returning to the U.S. from Europe, he worked his way up in the food-publishing business in New York City, New York, as a contributor to Gourmet magazine, a food-products publicist and finally becoming the food editor of The New York Times in 1957. Claiborne was the first man to supervise the food page at a major American newspaper and is credited with broadening The New York Times's coverage of new restaurants and innovative chefs. A typical food section of a newspaper in the 1950s was largely targeted to a female readership and limited to columns on entertaining and cooking for the upscale homemaker. Claiborne brought his knowledge of cuisine and own passion for food to the pages, transforming it into an important cultural and social bellwether for New York City and the nation at large.
Claiborne's columns, reviews and cookbooks introduced a generation of Americans to a variety of ethnic cuisines – particularly Asian and Mexican cuisines – at a time when average Americans had conservative tastes in food, and what little gourmet cooking was available in cities like New York was exclusively French (and, Claiborne observed, not terribly high quality). Looking to hold restaurants accountable for what they served and help the public make informed choices about where to spend their dining dollars, he created the four-star system of rating restaurants still used by The New York Times and which has been widely imitated. Claiborne's reviews were exacting and uncompromising, but he also approached his task as a critic with an open mind and eye for cooking that was different, creative and likely to appeal to his readers.
Inspired by food writers including M. F. K. Fisher, Claiborne also enjoyed documenting his own eating experiences and the discovery of new talent and new culinary trends across the country and across the world. Among the many then-unknown chefs he brought to the public's attention was the New Orleans, Lousiana, chef and restaurateur Paul Prudhomme. At the time, few people outside America's Deep South had any awareness of Louisiana's Cajun culture or its unique culinary traditions.
Along with chef, author and television personality Julia Child, Claiborne has been credited with making the often intimidating world of French and other ethnic cuisine accessible to an American audience and American tastes. Claiborne authored or edited over twenty cookbooks on a wide range of foods and culinary styles, including some of the first best-selling cookbooks dedicated to healthy, low-sodium and low-cholesterol diets. He had a long-time professional relationship and collaborated on many books and projects with the French-born New York City chef, author and television personality Pierre Franey.
In 1975, he placed a $300 winning bid at a charity auction for a no-price-limit dinner for two at any restaurant of the winner's choice, sponsored by American Express. Selecting Franey as his dining companion, the two settled on Chez Denis, a noted restaurant located in Paris, France, where they racked up a $4,000 tab on a five-hour, thirty-one-course meal of foie gras, truffles, lobster, caviar and rare wines. When Claiborne later wrote about the experience in his New York Times column, the newspaper received a deluge of reader mail expressing outrage at such an extravagance at a time when so many in the world went without. Even the Vatican and Pope Paul VI criticized it, calling it "scandalous." It was also noted that he and Franey ordered nearly every dish on the menu, but they took only a few bites of each one. Despite its scale and expense, Claiborne gave the meal a mixed review, noting that several dishes fell short in terms of conception, presentation or quality.
Claiborne was a fixture of the New York City social scene for decades. His lavish, celebrity-studded birthday parties at his East Hampton, New York, estate on eastern Long Island were a regular event on the Manhattan social calendar. Although he was out as a gay man to most of his friends and colleagues, he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. In his autobiography, A Feast Made for Laughter (1982), Claiborne described a bizarre, almost Faulknerian, childhood and adolescence in small-town Mississippi where he was mocked by schoolmates for his meek temperament and dislike of sports and had explicit sexual contact with his own father on at least one occasion. His mother was a warm and very genteel Southern lady, but doting and often overprotective of her young son. The young Claiborne often sought solace in the company of his mother's African-American kitchen and housekeeping staff, whose food, humor and culture he came to love.
Claiborne, who suffered from a variety of health problems in his later years, died at age 79 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, New York. No cause of death was given. In his will, he bequeathed his estate to the Culinary Institute of America, located in Hyde Park, New York.
Craig Claibornes: A Feast Made for Laughter by Craig Claiborne
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co (P); 1st Owl book ed edition (September 1983)
Amazon: Craig Claibornes: A Feast Made for Laughter
Craig Claiborne was one of the three best-known food writers in America during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s during his tenure at the New York Times, the others being Julia Child and James Beard. He legitimized the field of restaurant criticism by maintaining a discreet, anonymous profile in visiting a restaurant and paying his own check. He would evaluate the restaurant's food, ambience, and service, giving a rating between zero and four stars. Previously, it was common for reviewers to be paid by the very restaurants they were critiquing. Claiborne's ample knowledge of gastronomy commanded respect by restaurateurs who used his reviews to improve themselves.
He popularized the cuisines of China, Vietnamese, Indian, Brazilian, and a dozen more by having experts raised in the particular traditions to come to his house and cook where he would take meticulous notes, than write about them in the New York Times.
His first and most popular book, The New York Times Cookbook of 1961, sold over three million copies and was eventually translated into seventeen languages. He co-wrote (with Virginia Lee) the first American cookbook of genuine Chinese cuisine, The Chinese Cookbook, published in 1972, as well as twenty other cookbooks, including Craig Claiborne's Memorable Meals and Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking.
Born September 4, 1920 in Sunflower, Mississippi, he grew up in Indianola, Mississippi. He received a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi. After working in public relations, he enrolled in the L'Ecole Hôtelière Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association in Lausanne, Switzerland.
He lived most of his adult life in Manhattan and East Hampton, Long Island. He was known for his elaborate New Year's Eve and birthday parties, as well as his Fourth of July picnics. He died of a heart attack on January 22, 2000.
The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Free Press (May 8, 2012)
Amazon: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance
In the 1950s, America was a land of overdone roast beef and canned green beans—a gastronomic wasteland. Most restaurants relied on frozen, second-rate ingredients and served bogus “Continental” cuisine. Authentic French, Italian, and Chinese foods were virtually unknown. There was no such thing as food criticism at the time, and no such thing as a restaurant critic. Cooking at home wasn’t thought of as a source of pleasure. Guests didn’t chat around the kitchen. Professional equipment and cookware were used only in restaurants. One man changed all that.
From the bestselling author of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse comes the first biography of the passionate gastronome and troubled genius who became the most powerful force in the history of American food—the founding father of the American food revolution. From his first day in 1957 as the food editor of the New York Times, Craig Claiborne was going to take his readers where they had never been before. Claiborne extolled the pleasures of exotic cuisines from all around the world, and with his inspiration, restaurants of every ethnicity blossomed. So many things we take for granted now were introduced to us by Craig Claiborne—crÈme fraÎche, arugula, balsamic vinegar, the Cuisinart, chef’s knives, even the salad spinner.
He would give Julia Child her first major book review. He brought Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, Paul Prudhomme, and Jacques PÉpin to national acclaim. His $4,000 dinner for two in Paris was a front-page story in the Times and scandalized the world. And while he defended the true French nouvelle cuisine against bastardization, he also reveled in a well-made stew or a good hot dog. He made home cooks into stars—Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedy, and many others. And Craig Claiborne made dinner an event—whether dining out, delighting your friends, or simply cooking for your family. His own dinner parties were legendary.
Craig Claiborne was the perfect Mississippi gentleman, but his inner life was one of conflict and self-doubt. Constrained by his position to mask his sexuality, he was imprisoned in solitude, never able to find a stable and lasting love. Through Thomas McNamee’s painstaking research and eloquent storytelling, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat unfolds a history that is largely unknown and also tells the full, deep story of a great man who until now has never been truly known at all.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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