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Craig Claiborne Revises a Kitchen Classic

May 9, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Perhaps no one has eaten so well for so long as Craig Claiborne.

For three decades as food editor of The New York Times, Claiborne had access to the best meals being served. Anywhere.

In Mississippi, during a childhood of grits and beaten biscuits and black- eyed peas in the kitchen of his mother’s boardinghouse. In Switzerland, as a student at the Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association.

In China, Hong Kong and countless top restaurants in Europe. Even in his own kitchen on Long Island, where many great chefs came to him.

A turning point was a meal of couscous in Casablanca during World War II. ″I flipped. I went crazy about couscous,″ he said in an interview Tuesday at his mid-Manhattan apartment as he peered characteristically over reading glasses.

That meal, he said in his autobiography, ″I swear to this day gave me my initial, unquenchable interest in food and food preparation.″

Claiborne, 69, published his first book, ″The New York Times Cookbook,″ in 1961, four years after he became the newspaper’s first male food editor.

He expected to sell around 15,000 books. He slept little, always expecting a call in the middle of the night from an irate cook trying to make ″the macaroni and cheese on page 152 and it doesn’t work.″

Eventually, 3 million copies were sold. And the book has become a dog- eared, authoritative companion to Fannie Farmer or ″Joy of Cooking″ in many kitchens.

This time, 20 books later, he has become one of the nation’s most influential food writers and is sleeping nights despite publication of an extensively revised edition of ″The New York Times Cookbook″ (Harper & Row, $25).

″When I first joined the Times, the ultimate thing in food was French cooking,″ and the ultimate dish was pike quenelles in lobster sauce, he said. There was just one Japanese restaurant in Manhattan.

The new book was the result of a revolution in food.

″Back in those days, no one ever heard of a pesto sauce or sun-dried tomatoes, and the only mustard was ballpark mustard,″ he said. ″Americans thought tuna came out of a can and that was it.″

Balsamic vinegar, ″one of the greatest additions to American culture where food is concerned,″ arrived from Italy.

All sorts of salad greens. Regional American, Thai, Vietnamese food.

And California cuisine, ″if you could tell me what that is, thank you,″ he said with a smirk.

There have been other changes, such as the food processor. It was a gadget Claiborne in 1972 predicted never would go over with American consumers.

One takes up some of the tiny bit of counter space in Claiborne’s Manhattan kitchen, which has just a two-burner gas stove and a small convection oven. One wall is covered with copper pots and iron pans and two telephones.

A head of cabbage, a few red potatoes, two tomatoes and some onions sat on the counter, but Claiborne said he rarely cooks there, preferring his 5,000- square-foot home in Easthampton, on Long Island.

It was in that professional-quality kitchen where he tested recipes for his new book.

Claiborne and his editor, Joan Whitman, attacked the first book, weeding out the likes of frankfurter goulash, cutting some fats and salt, and adding more pasta and Asian dishes, fresh tuna and a black olive puree for pasta. Forty percent of the recipes are new.

Many old standards - even some with beef or butter, or both - remain. At a recent book signing, he said, a rather frantic woman ran up to ask if herbal meatloaf had made the cut. It had. He was relieved.

Claiborne himself, however, has for 10 years, after a diagnosis of high blood pressure, restricted his fat and salt. ″I follow the basic guidelines, but I give myself latitude.″

Breakfast is nearly always juice and yogurt; lunch ″almost always″ is fresh tomato soup (recipe page 72 of the new book), toast, Gorgonzola cheese and panforte; and dinner is pasta, a hamburger or a dish such as Wiener schnitzel.

His next project, he said, is a book on table manners and settings for use professionally and in the home. Admittedly opinionated on the matter, he cites all manner of violations he has witnessed.

″On an airline, it drives me crazy when they say, ‘Would you care for wine or champagne?’ ... They should say still wine or champagne.″ Or, table candles with the flame at eye level. Waiters who touch the rim of a glass. Table settings that are not strictly uniform.

″I have seen educated adults pick their teeth at the table,″ he said.

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