For a guy whose life was wrapped in the fiction of bachelorhood and whose death proved so deeply lonely, Craig Claiborne managed to father a hell of a lot of children. Not actual kids (Claiborne was gay, at a time when a whole generation of unmarried homosexual men were winkingly tagged “bachelors”), but—as Thomas McNamee shows in his absorbing bio, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat—as New York Times food editor, writer, and restaurant critic for a couple of decades starting in the 1950s. Claiborne, who died in 2000, had enormous influence. He still does—even if nobody reads him anymore.
As McNamee shows, Claiborne managed to create the template for food writers that survives today: applying the rules of journalism—objectivity, transparency, professionalism—not only to trend pieces and chef profiles, but also to recipe writing, even restaurant criticism (Claiborne pioneered the anonymous review, and introduced the star rating system to the U.S.). More important than all of that, though, was Claiborne’s knack (under Times managing editor Arthur Gelb) for attaching food and cooking to the notion of “lifestyle.” Whether you actually roasted that baby goat—in your Scarsdale backyard—the way Claiborne described seeing it done in New Mexico, you aspired to.
The daddy of lifestyle food journalism was an unlikely genius: closeted (you could get arrested in the ’50s and ’60s for giving a blow job), alcoholic (he guzzled stingers), overwhelmed by memories of his stifling childhood in the backwater South (try being a sensitive sissy boy in 1920s rural Mississippi). The man who’d end up being the most famous food personality in an epic generation that included James Beard and Julia Child turned a degree at a fancy Swiss cooking school and some journalism classes into a job that didn’t seem all that prestigious in 1957. Before Claiborne became the food editor of the New York Times, the paper’s coverage had been drab and utilitarian—Easy Date-Nut Bread or Cheesy Chicken Bake—planted by food corporations like General Mills, or submitted by readers, from galley kitchens in New Jersey split-levels.
It was Claiborne who imagined food as a serious intellectual pursuit: not just the thing you put on the table, but an expression of culture, even artistry. The amazing thing is that he just did it (for many years he was the Times’ one and only food writer), without any of his bosses telling him what to do.
No doubt they quickly saw that Claiborne had a nose for what smelled cool. That meant doing profiles of home-cook obsessives like the artist Ed Giobbi. It meant giving a platform to authors of well-researched books about foreign cuisines: Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedy, Marcella Hazan, Richard Olney—hell, even, in 1961, an unknown Child. He had a career-long collaboration with the chef Pierre Franey; Jacques Pépin was a loyal protégé.
And in a way, Claiborne was a proto-Chowhound, always engaged by food, always pushing through to find the next thing: Paul Bocuse and French Nouvelle Cuisine, Alice Waters and the rustic purity of early Chez Panisse.
BOMBS AND BANH MI
Back in 1972, when Americans were still pretty deep in chop suey, Claiborne published The Chinese Cookbook with Virginia Lee, still a pretty decent book. And in 1974—more than a decade after a bouillabaisse-spattered copy of The New York Times Cook Book had a place in every suburban kitchen in America, when he was successful enough to just phone it in—he stopped to check out the food in Saigon. (McNamee says it was fall 1974, but that can’t be right—can it?—given that the last American military chopper airlifted in April of that year?) [Editor’s note: Oops! Turns out we were wrong: The American evacuation happened in 1975] Like I said: balls.
But the thing that killed Claiborne, besides the stingers and the loneliness that came along with being a high-profile figure who had to cruise for sex, in the back-alley days before Gay Lib (or Grindr), was snobbery. He loved fancy, heavily truffled French food, especially the kind that was the specialty of Henri Soulé’s Le Pavillon in its prime in the 1950s, all galantines and caviar and the kind of sneering that was a cliché of the French waiter in Manhattan.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s a younger, more female, more consumer-focused brand of restaurant critic was getting bylines. Gael Greene and Mimi Sheraton were anti-Claibornes—Sheraton, especially, didn’t give a shit if there was Romanée-Conti on the wine list if the maître d’ seated you in Siberia and the sommelier barely condescended to appear. That his achievements were eventually trampled by the very American food media he’d unleashed was Claiborne’s tragedy. The father of American food writing had awfully ungrateful kids.
Top photograph courtesy of Claiborne Barnwell