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Food Writer Craig Claiborne Dies

January 24, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ Craig Claiborne, who grew from a childhood eating beaten biscuits in his mother’s Mississippi boarding house to become one of the country’s most influential culinary writers in three decades as food editor at The New York Times, has died. He was 79.

Claiborne died Saturday at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, the Times said. No cause of death was given. He lived in Manhattan and in East Hampton.

Soft-spoken, slight and prolific, Claiborne in 1957 became the first male food editor at The New York Times, bringing a wide-ranging and critical palate that appreciated a deli sandwich as well as his beloved classic French food.

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, male and female.

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.

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 home in East Hampton, on the East End of Long Island, was often a laboratory for recipes and guest quarters for great chefs from this country 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 New York 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, including the autobiography ``A Feast Made for Laughter.″ He revised 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 _ just some of the changes in the way Americans ate that occurred during Claiborne’s tenure as an influential food writer.

Influential, but not all-powerful: In 1972, Claiborne declared the food processor a gadget American consumers would not embrace.

Claiborne retired from the Times in 1988.

Claiborne’s 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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