The late Craig Claiborne introduced many things to North Americans as food editor of The New York Times. The list, according to the jacket flap of a just-published biography, includes: “crème fraiche, arugula, balsamic vinegar, the Cuisinart, chef’s knives, even the salad spinner.”
He helped make household names of professional chefs like Pierre Franey, Jacques Pepin and Paul Prudhomme, and “home cooks” like Madhur Jaffrey, Maida Heatter, Marcella Hazan, Virginia Lee and Diana Kennedy. He even gave Julia Child a crucial boost by praising Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
And, 50 years ago, Claiborne invented the modern restaurant review when he began writing a dining column in the Times. His standards, making multiple visits, paying his own way, remaining anonymous, refusing bribery or other flim-flammery, broke new and important ground in food journalism. He created a standard that still holds considerable sway even in this Internet age in which anybody with a mobile phone can be a critic.
Claiborne was named food editor in 1957, a male in what newspapers across the country dismissively described as the “women’s pages.” He pushed food onto page one as serious news. Sometimes he was the news, as when he flew to Paris and famously ran up a $4,000 bill — not chump change in the 1970s — after winning dinner anywhere in the world during a public television auction.
Classically trained and an excellent writer, Claiborne could explain haute cuisine to readers. But this man, born into genteel poverty in Sunflower, Miss., was also a champion of regional and ethnic cooking then so thoroughly ignored.
“Nothing in the food world would have been the way [it was] if he wasn’t there,” says Thomas McNamee of San Francisco, author of that new biography, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance (Free Press, $27). “When he started at the Times, America was a food wasteland. Craig thought bringing serious food to the United States was worth a try.”
Claiborne succeeded, perhaps beyond even his most ambitious dreams. It was a time, food journalist Betty Fussell once memorably quipped, when “a nation of Puritans discovered that food was a pleasure, and that like sex, you could do it at home. And he kind of bridged the gap between doing it yourself and paying someone else to do it.”
Fussell, who profiled Claiborne in her 1983 work, Masters of American Cookery: The American Food Revolution and the Chefs Who Shape It, says he focused on taste, whether dining out or cooking at home.
The Times provided a bully pulpit from which Claiborne could proclaim his food vision. His newspaper writings were widely circulated. The New York Times Cookbook, published in 1961, is considered a classic and has sold millions of copies. His later books, many with his name in the title as a selling hook, came with impressive regularity and were well-received.
But Claiborne, tragically, lost that control along the way, as detailed in McNamee’s book. Drinking ravaged his health and his reputation. Cut off from the Times, his power source, in 1986, he was unable to maintain the high trajectory of his earlier career. An unpleasant streak, exacerbated by illness, drove away the friends who had served as family. By the time he died at age 79 in 2000, he was largely unmourned by his colleagues and half-forgotten by the public.
“He trashed his own caboose almost compulsively,” Fussell says. “He caught the wave as it was beginning but crashed instead of riding it all the way in.”