September 8, 1920 – Craig Claiborne:
“Man was meant to eat“
Tellingly, three gay guys, Richard Olney, plus Portland’s own James Beard and Craig Claiborne, changed how we approached and talked about food in 20th Century USA.
Claiborne was an important restaurant critic, food writer and cookbook author. He was born in Sunflower, Mississippi, and was raised on Southern Cuisine in the kitchen of his mother’s boarding house, where he hung out with the African American staff. It was a dark, disturbing childhood; he was bullied by his schoolmates, and his mother was difficult (Claiborne didn’t attend her funeral). He was openly molested by his father.
Claiborne wrote articles for Gourmet magazine before becoming the Food Editor of The New York Times in 1957, a post usually filled by a woman. At the NY Times (this was before it was “failing”), he created the four-star rating system for restaurants that is still used today and set a protocol for reviews that involved visiting a restaurant at least three times with three or four other people, anonymously whenever possible. He wrote about a chef’s cooking in detail, rating the restaurant rigorously on its food, ambiance and service.
He brought a genteel, yet authoritative, style to restaurant reviewing that was never harsh or mean spirited. Claiborne created a new template for food writers, applying the rules of journalism: objectivity, transparency, professionalism. He wrote about food trends, profiles of chefs, and he had an elegant way with recipes. He introduced the notion of food and cooking as a lifestyle.
His columns were immensely popular and helped open Americans to ethnic cuisines, especially Asian and Mexican food. Before Claiborne became the food editor of The NY Times, the food section was mostly “Easy Desserts” and “Quick Recipes for the Busy Wife”, provided by the giant food corporations like General Mills, or submitted by readers in weekly contests.
Claiborne thought of food as a serious intellectual pursuit and an expression of culture and an art form. For years, he was the Times’ only food writer. Astonishingly, he did it without any of his bosses telling him what or how to do it.
In 1964, he edited and annotated The New York Times Cook Book; it sold over a million copies. In 1972, when Americans were dining on chop suey, Claiborne published The Chinese Cookbook along with chef Virginia Lee.
Claiborne’s laconic and diffident countenance hid a natural flamboyant, whimsical spirit. He gave extravagant birthday parties for himself on ocean liners and in restaurants; and he frequently held lavish dinner parties at his home for celebrities and notables.
Claiborne’s most notorious column was about a $4,000 dinner in Paris in November 1975, the result of a winning bid on a television fund-raiser. He wrote about the 31-course meal. His report was printed on the front page of The NY Times, cementing his reputation for audacity and panache. Reader response was angry. More than a thousand letters to the editor expressed outrage that anyone could spend thousands of dollars on dinner when people all over the world faced starvation. The Vatican said it was “scandalous”. Claiborne’s stamina was legendary; and to sum up the experience Claiborne replied:
“You know what was so amazing about that meal? I don’t really feel that stuffed.”
In the late 1970s, Claiborne was told by his doctor that he had to limit fat and salt in his diet, and readers followed his progress as if it were a soap opera. His book Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet introduced the new concepts of low-sodium and low-fat cooking to millions of Americans.
Claiborne was a gay man who lived and worked in a time when it was professional suicide to be out of the closet. He was out to most of his friends and colleagues, but he was conflicted about his gayness. Like so many other gay guys in the 1950s and 1960s, Claiborne put himself out there as a “Confirmed Bachelor”. He also drank too much.
Besides the cocktails and the loneliness that came with being a public figure, he had to cruise for sex the old-fashioned way, in bars that were frequently raided by the police and in public parks. This was before hook-up apps or even personal ads.
Claiborne suffered from a variety of health problems, but made to 79 years old, succumbing in 2000. He left his books and papers to the Culinary Institute of America and personal items to friends. However, he bequeathed his house in the Hamptons, his apartment in Manhattan, and everything else not specifically named in his will to his married lover, James Dinneen, who had six children, and lived in Florida. Yet in Claiborne style, the two had countless trysts for more than two decades in choice hotels throughout the world and dined exquisitely until age and illness parted them. Dying nearly a decade later, Dinneen left behind no acknowledgment of their even having met.