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New York Times Food Critic Dies

January 24, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ Craig Claiborne was one of America’s most emphatic epicures, a critic who once enjoyed a $4,000 dinner in Paris with a friend and escorted readers from the delights of a deli sandwich to the splendors of haute cuisine.

Claiborne wrote more than 20 books in three decades as a New York Times food editor and the newspaper’s occasional restaurant critic, including its own cook book and an autobiography, ``A Feast Made for Laughter.″

He died Saturday at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. No cause of death was given. Claiborne was 79.

In 1957, Claiborne, who grew up eating biscuits and fried chicken in his mother’s Mississippi boarding house, became the first male food editor at the Times.

Responsible in some measure for the American mania for food that developed in the last few decades, Claiborne took readers around the world, discovering ingredients and recipes and making them accessible to home cooks.

He also said he was the first restaurant critic with a formal education in food, which he received at the Swiss Hotelkeepers Association school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Before Claiborne, restaurant reviews often pleased advertisers more than diners. As reader interest in eating out rose, Claiborne acted as a food reporter in reviews and columns.

Not all his research was done in others’ kitchens and restaurants. His Long Island home was often a laboratory for recipes and guest quarters for great chefs from the United States and abroad.

A lifelong bachelor fond of formal dining and elaborate parties, Claiborne described himself as shy and something of a loner. Yet his 70th birthday was celebrated in Monte Carlo with a three-day bash topped with a black-tie dinner for more than 200 people, among them more than 60 restaurateurs and chefs.

Perhaps his most famous meal was shared with just one person, his longtime collaborator Pierre Franey, in November 1975 at Chez Denis in Paris. The tab: $4,000.

The pair had bid $300 in a public television fund-raising auction for the prize, donated by American Express, for dinner for two anywhere at any price. They shared nine wines, including an 1835 Madeira, to accompany 31 dishes, sensuously described in a front-page Times story. Hundreds of readers complained about the excess.

Claiborne was born Sept. 4, 1920, in Sunflower, Miss. His father, a cotton farmer, lost most of his property soon afterward and his mother, an accomplished cook, held the family together financially by opening a boardinghouse.

As a child, Claiborne was close to the cooks who helped his mother and he often ate their biscuits, fried chicken, greens and some Creole dishes. In his ``Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking,″ he noted that ``nothing can equal the universal appeal of the food of one’s childhood and early youth.″

But, he said, it was a serving of couscous, served in Casablanca during his Navy service in World War II, that gave him his ``unquenchable interest in food and food preparation.″

He studied hotel service in Switzerland and upon returning to the United States went to work at Gourmet magazine. When Jane Nickerson retired from the Times, he applied, suggesting it was time the job was held by a man.

In 1961, four years later, he published his first book, ``The New York Times Cookbook,″ which eventually sold 3 million copies.

He went on to write 20 books, and updated ``The New York Times Cookbook″ in 1990 to take into account pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, the food processor, regional American and Asian foods.

Claiborne retired from the Times in 1988.

His 1992 book, ``Elements of Etiquette,″ lamented the loss of table manners and tried to increase the joy of sharing food at table with tips on appropriate behavior for everything from formal invitations to picking up food with the fingers.

``The dinner table is not an appropriate setting for conversations of an intimate nature, be it romance or health, nor should such depressing topics as financial problems, career dilemmas and family crises be examined,″ he wrote.

``And silverware should be the heavy metal at a dinner party, not the music.″

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