`A real gent,' Claiborne, dies at 79

Appreciation: The cookbook writer and former New York Times restaurant reviewer is recalled as a man with gracious manners who appreciated the flavor of real food -- whether corn bread or coq au vin.

January 25, 2000|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

As word of Craig Claiborne's death filtered through the food world yesterday, the vivacious epicure was remembered as a critic with a keen palate who loved good food and the good life.

Claiborne was a native of Sunflower, Miss., who went on to study at the Swiss Hotelkeepers Association school in Lausanne, Switzerland, become a restaurant critic and the first male food editor of the New York Times and write more than 20 cookbooks, including probably his most well-known work, "The New York Times Cookbook."

He died Saturday at the age of 79 in New York.

In telephone interviews, cookbook authors, restaurant owners and chefs from around the nation talked about Claiborne's professional impact and personal style.

Claiborne was "tremendously important in the food history of America. There was no real restaurant reviewing until he came along," said Julia Child.

Claiborne's work habits, including making anonymous visits to restaurants he was reviewing, helped to change the perception of food journalism, she said.

"It began to be regarded as a serious profession," Child said. "Before him, it was treated as mere women's work."

"He was a real gent," said Calvin Trillin, author of several books on American food, including "Alice, Let's Eat" and "American Fried." "You can't use the word `courtly' about very many people who work for newspapers. But in his case it applied.

"In New York, food people sometimes have the reputation of being very nasty and backbiting. He wasn't that way," said Trillin, who writes for the New Yorker. "He seemed to glide above all that."

"Once he knew you, he would tell you anything," said Marion Cunningham, author of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," from her northern California home. "He would tell you that he had to write a cookbook because he needed the money, or he would tell you about the latest love of his life. That was Craig. His life was an open book."

I interviewed Claiborne several times, both in New York, where he kept an apartment near Carnegie Hall, and during his visits to Baltimore and Washington. He was a slight, lively man with a strong Southern accent and gracious manners.

In 1981, when he appeared on a Washington food panel, he struck me as history professor going over old material, as he rattled off the three main reasons for Americans' growing interest in restaurant-going -- increased affluence, increased international travel and a boom in international cookbooks.

Later, during an interview conducted on a cab ride to the airport, he likened Americans' fondness for fast food to a fondness for watching soap operas. He said people know they should quit eating fast food and watching soaps, but they just can't.

He also told me that when he was flying he always accepted the tray of food served to him, but never ate it. Airline food, he said, is "just a diversion."

Claiborne joined the New York Times in 1957 and for 29 years served as both its food editor and, intermittently, its restaurant critic. Perhaps Claiborne's most notorious gastronomic adventure was a $4,000 dinner in Paris in November 1975, the result of a winning bid on a television fund-raiser. Reports of the 31-course meal for two built his reputation for audacity and panache but also garnered widespread criticism.

Baltimore's Richard Cernak recalled the summer afternoon in the late 1970s when Claiborne walked into the back of Obrycki's, the East Baltimore restaurant run by Cernak and his family.

"It was a hot afternoon, and I was steaming crabs," Cernak said. "He introduced himself and asked if he could send around a photographer."

Claiborne's subsequent laudatory article in the New York Times, "really put us on the map for folks outside Baltimore," Cernak said.

Claiborne continued to visit the restaurant, usually as part of a trip to mark his Sept. 4 birthday. "He wasn't a fussy eater," Cernak said. "But he never ate a lot of food. ... He tasted, eating maybe three quarters of a crab cake."

After Obrycki's, the next stop on Claiborne's birthday trek was usually the Inn at Little Washington, the Virginia mountain inn rated as one of the top restaurants in the nation.

During one visit, chef Patrick O'Connell ushered Claiborne into a section of the restaurant that had been decorated to resemble a tent in Morocco, a country Claiborne visited as a young man. Claiborne eye-balled the room, then asked for a "double shot of tequila, with the worm," O'Connell said.

But the birthday party paled in comparison to another bash held in Monte Carlo for his 70th birthday, O'Connell said. There, O'Connell and about 50 chefs from around the world dined for hours on cuisine prepared by a four-star French chef and his staff of 80.

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