Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

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John F
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Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Tue Apr 10, 2012 2:25 am

April 9, 2012
Contentment’s Elusive Recipe
By FRANK BRUNI

Long before chefs were made of iron and “barefoot” brought to mind “contessa” and a cultured 9-year-old could tell farfalle from fusilli at 10 feet, an anxious Southern man named Craig Claiborne sat on a remote island in the Pacific and plotted to turn the American culinary world on its head.

He didn’t say it to himself that way. But that’s what was really going on when Claiborne, then in his early 30s and finishing a tour of duty in the Korean War, decided to weld his interest in writing to his love of food and make a career of the two. In those days, jobs like food editor of The New York Times — the position he wanted, at the paper he worshiped — were held by women and accorded only so much respect. Recipes didn’t topple governments; articles about restaurants were advertorials in drag. His desire to approach both with the utmost ambition was almost revolutionary.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the first of the many restaurant reviews that Claiborne, who indeed became The Times’s food editor and is widely regarded as the father of contemporary restaurant criticism, wrote for this newspaper. It also brings the publication of the first serious biography of him, “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance,” by Thomas McNamee.

I recently cracked open an advance copy, eager to trace the path from most Americans’ pre-Claiborne apathy about matters gastronomic to the fever-pitch fetishism now, and to learn how he landed the part he played in that transformation. His formula for success? He spotted an uninhabited niche, positioned himself to fill it and, when he got that break, rode it for all it was worth. A highly effective person doesn’t need seven habits if he has those three.

But what I found most striking was the discrepancy between the magnitude of Claiborne’s accomplishment and the limits of his contentment.

He went from hardscrabble boyhood in Mississippi to high-stepping celebrity in New York, kept a work calendar indistinguishable from a roundelay of indulgence, ate his way around the world while readers hung on every bite, published one best-selling cookbook after another, and made enough money and important contacts to host or be feted with birthday parties of princely excess.

He had fans, friends and fabulous kitchens, which enabled memorable dinner parties. Beyond all that he had a legacy, which should have been clear to him long before his death in 2000 at age 79. Along with James Beard and Julia Child, the other two of what the writer David Kamp calls “the big three” in his book “The United States of Arugula,” Claiborne made it not just acceptable but exciting — actually, mandatory — for home cooks and amateur eaters to concoct and swap notes about culinary rapture. On his own he turned the prospecting for great restaurants into high journalistic drama.

But in McNamee’s pages he frequently comes across as fearful, irritable, lonely and depressed. He exiles his mother from his life, eventually skipping her funeral. He marinates himself in alcohol — martinis, Montrachet, Scotch, stingers — to a point where hangovers are habitual. His story, with lessons that transcend the kitchen or brasserie, proves anew that reaching the summit doesn’t mean enjoying the view, that professional victories don’t silence personal demons, and that a loving companion matters. Claiborne often lacked one who was wholly devoted.

Part of his challenge was being gay in a very different country and time. In 1963, as his star at The Times rose ever higher, there appeared this front-page headline: “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.” Emperor of the newspaper’s food pages, he was reduced to anthropological curiosity on its cover.

And by 1971, he was jaded. “Here he was, fifty years old, at the top of a profession that he had created, the king of a kingdom he had created, and bored stiff,” McNamee writes. Claiborne quit The Times for about three years, then returned. He drank enough to wind up with a cracked scalp and 27 stitches on one occasion and an arrest for driving while intoxicated on another.

He seemed somewhat estranged from his triumphs. But then he was estranged from himself, evident in his uncharacteristically sluggish progress on his ultimately disparaged memoir, for which he would “hammer out single paragraphs, not knowing where they might fit.”

McNamee notes that for the “personal poem” Claiborne produced as an anniversary present to one longtime lover, he paid $240 to Limerick Lane Poetryworks, which promised verse to call your own in return for the right background information. This was in 1992, the same year that the James Beard Foundation gave him a lifetime achievement award. He skipped the ceremony.

His tale is a sad reminder: happiness has less to do with achievement than with perspective. And sometimes the person inside a life, storied or otherwise, is least able to savor it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/opini ... -life.html
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Tue Apr 10, 2012 5:51 am

John F wrote: Contentment’s Elusive Recipe
Wow, never realized the sad part of his life--in the past I remember a time being hardly able to wait for his review of a restaurant--still use his cookbooks today. Regards, Len

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Tue Apr 10, 2012 6:17 am

I still use his New York Times cookbook too, though not as much. Mark Bittman gives more precise measurements and timings in "How to Cook Everything," and while Claiborne's recipes mostly turned out fine, they sometimes made me nervous.
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Tue Apr 10, 2012 7:42 am

John F wrote:while Claiborne's recipes mostly turned out fine, they sometimes made me nervous.
The one who made me nervous was Julia Child--her recipes always seemed more complicated than they had to be. Regards, Len

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:42 am

My father had Julia Julia on French cooking and actually used it sometimes - he enjoyed complicated processes. But I didn't claim his copy when he died; for me, Julia was a TV entertainer more than an actual teacher.
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Apr 10, 2012 1:31 pm

lennygoran wrote:
John F wrote: Contentment’s Elusive Recipe
Wow, never realized the sad part of his life--in the past I remember a time being hardly able to wait for his review of a restaurant--still use his cookbooks today. Regards, Len
I might say "dark" instead of "sad," as the whole point is that he revved things up to keep himself from being sad, a fairly common thing among famous and productive people of an older generation that was not dealt with as judgmentally as it is today.

There is not much in this book as described by Bruni that is not already known from common foodie sources that talk about Craig Claiborne, which is not to imply that anyone should know about such things already. Claiborne published his own autobiography which did not go into his drinking, but did frankly describe a boyhood incident of something closely resembling incest from his father.
John F wrote:Julia [Child] was a TV entertainer more than an actual teacher.
That's extraordinary. You make her sound like any number of quasi-floozies on food TV today who don't know the difference between beef burgundy and beef jerky who are exactly what you say. Julia Child's entertainment factor was entirely serendipitous. One might not want to go through her recipes, which are more time-consuming than complicated or difficult, but that does not mean that she did not teach them to us well, on TV as well as in her book. She was famously inspiring and groundbreaking, and what better compliment can a teacher have?

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Tue Apr 10, 2012 3:18 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
John F wrote:Julia [Child] was a TV entertainer more than an actual teacher.
That's extraordinary. You make her sound like any number of quasi-floozies on food TV today who don't know the difference between beef burgundy and beef jerky who are exactly what you say.
No I don't. I was speaking of what I personally got from her TV shows - I said "for me," though you've misquoted me by leaving out the qualifier. If others actually learned how to prepare Gateau au Chocolate L'eminence Brune from watching her do it in fuzzy black and white, good for them. For me, that show is more notable as the libretto for Lee Hoiby's one-act opera "Bon Appetit."
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Wed Apr 11, 2012 5:30 am

John F wrote:My father had Julia Julia on French cooking and actually used it sometimes - he enjoyed complicated processes. But I didn't claim his copy when he died; for me, Julia was a TV entertainer more than an actual teacher.
On one of our trips to Washington DC which has now become an annual event we visited her kitchen housed in the Smithsoneon--they were playing some of her more famous clips--a riot! Regards, Len :)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Wed Apr 11, 2012 5:35 am

jbuck919 wrote:
lennygoran wrote:
John F wrote: Contentment’s Elusive Recipe

There is not much in this book as described by Bruni that is not already known from common foodie sources that talk about Craig Claiborne, which is not to imply that anyone should know about such things already.
Now I'm crushed--I should have known--I'm removing myself from the list of foodies. Regards, Len :cry: :cry: :cry:

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Apr 11, 2012 12:11 pm

lennygoran wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:
lennygoran wrote:
John F wrote: Contentment’s Elusive Recipe

There is not much in this book as described by Bruni that is not already known from common foodie sources that talk about Craig Claiborne, which is not to imply that anyone should know about such things already.
Now I'm crushed--I should have known--I'm removing myself from the list of foodies. Regards, Len :cry: :cry: :cry:
That's OK, Len. Obviously you just read the wrong one hundred books. :)

(Seriously, there is no reason you should have stumbled on such information even with a lot of food-related reading, and perhaps I should have phrased my post differently.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Thu Apr 12, 2012 5:53 am

jbuck919 wrote:
That's OK, Len. Obviously you just read the wrong one hundred books. :)
Yes I guess those Zagat books just don't cut it! :) :) :)

Wonder whether it was alcohol or what he says below that gave him more comfort?

“Nothing rekindles my spirits, gives comfort to my heart and mind, more than a visit to Mississippi... and to be regaled as I often have been, with a platter of fried chicken, field peas, collard greens, fresh corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes with French dressing... and to top it all off with a wedge of freshly baked pecan pie.”
― Craig Claiborn

Regards, Len [fleeing]

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Apr 12, 2012 1:20 pm

lennygoran wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:
That's OK, Len. Obviously you just read the wrong one hundred books. :)
Yes I guess those Zagat books just don't cut it! :) :) :)

Wonder whether it was alcohol or what he says below that gave him more comfort?

“Nothing rekindles my spirits, gives comfort to my heart and mind, more than a visit to Mississippi... and to be regaled as I often have been, with a platter of fried chicken, field peas, collard greens, fresh corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes with French dressing... and to top it all off with a wedge of freshly baked pecan pie.”
― Craig Claiborn
It's not a case of either/or. One has to be in one's cups to find the idea of visiting Mississippi for any reason comforting. :mrgreen:

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Fri Apr 13, 2012 4:58 am

jbuck919 wrote:
One has to be in one's cups to find the idea of visiting Mississippi for any reason comforting. :mrgreen:
Well what about these sites:

Longwood Plantation
140 Lower Woodville Road
Natchez, MS 39120
601-442-5193
Built by Haller and Julia Nutt, this octagonal house is said by many to be the grandest in the world. The historic building was completed in 1861 and is a gorgeous example of the Greek Revival Style. It's truly a blessing on the state of Mississippi that it has survived intact into the 21st century.

Natchez Trace Parkway
Witness the vestiges of a beautiful parkway which stretches from Jackson in its southern reaches all the way to Nashville. This pristine wildlife area is a beautifully preserved expanse spanning some 423 miles of gorgeous wilderness, blazed on the path of a former Indian trail, much of which remains to this day. Re-commune with nature in a location which couldn't be more ideal if it tried.

And of course let's not forget the gardens!

http://www.gardensites.info/states/ms.htm Regards, Len :)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Fri Apr 13, 2012 8:06 am

lennygoran wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:One has to be in one's cups to find the idea of visiting Mississippi for any reason comforting. :mrgreen:
Well what about these sites:

Longwood Plantation
A monument to slavery, as the cotton plantation whose profits paid for that mansion was worked by slave labor.
lennygoran wrote:Natchez Trace Parkway
What's so "comforting" about a highway, and is it worth visiting Mississippi for? People who live there have the lowest income in the nation, the worst education system, and the most right-wing politics, which may be comforting to some but surely not to you. For example:
Wikipedia wrote:Section 265 of the Constitution of the State of Mississippi declares that "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state." This provision is unenforceable but is de facto considering the electorate demographic profile of the state's counties.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi

Craig Claiborne was born in Mississippi and though he left fairly early in life for the Navy and New York, he remained nostalgic for southern cooking, particularly his mother's. They don't call it "comfort food" for nothing. jbuck919's comment, then, may be true for many - certainly for me and I suspect for you as well - but it misses the point for Claiborne.
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Fri Apr 13, 2012 8:23 am

John F wrote: What's so "comforting" about a highway, and is it worth visiting Mississippi for?
I heard there's beautiful scenery and I could finish the journey in New Orleans! Well at least you had nothing bad to say about the gardens! Regards, Len :)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Fri Apr 13, 2012 8:37 am

Nothing good either. :mrgreen:
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Sat Apr 14, 2012 7:01 am

John F wrote:Nothing good either. :mrgreen:
Maybe there'd be some good things to say if only you'd get yourself to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens--it's gonna be a lovely day. Meantime the lilies arrived from Brent and Becky's Bulbs - Virginia Bulb Growers! --we'll be out there!

And on the plantation front what's your position on all the people who visit Jefferson's Monticello--I want to know because you came down so hard on the one in Mississippi. Regards, Len :)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Sat Apr 14, 2012 7:29 am

Jefferson was a slave-owner and that's definitely a blot on his reputation. Who would say it isn't? But he has a few things on the positive side of the balance sheet too. There's nothing to be said for Haller Nutt, who grew rich off the labor of his slaves and used them to build his manor too.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haller_Nutt

As for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I don't get much of a kick out of looking at plants, just from eating them. :mrgreen: Which brings us back within shouting distance of Craig Claiborne.
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Sat Apr 14, 2012 7:47 am

John F wrote:Jefferson was a slave-owner and that's definitely a blot on his reputation. Who would say it isn't? But he has a few things on the positive side of the balance sheet too. There's nothing to be said for Haller Nutt, who grew rich off the labor of his slaves and used them to build his manor too.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haller_Nutt

As for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I don't get much of a kick out of looking at plants, just for eating them. :mrgreen:
I noticed this in the wiki on Nutt: "Longwood is the largest octagonal house in the United States." It would be interesting to see how this compares with Jefferson's Octagonal House Poplar Forest --yes this is my justification--a comparison of the 2 octagonal structures! :)

And shouldn't Nutt get some credit for this:

"He developed a strain of cotton that became important commercially for the Deep South."

As for your eating habits having broken bread with you so many times I fully commend you on those!

Regards, Len :)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Sat Apr 14, 2012 9:22 am

lennygoran wrote:And shouldn't Nutt get some credit for this: "He developed a strain of cotton that became important commercially for the Deep South."
I don't see why. Just because something has become "important commercially," whatever that means, doesn't make it a good thing. Besides, I can't verify that. It isn't footnoted in the Wikipedia article, and the only source that is cited, the Nutt family papers in the Mississippi archives, mentions no such thing. You're grasping at straws, or at cotton bolls. :)
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Apr 14, 2012 1:18 pm

lennygoran wrote:"He developed a strain of cotton that became important commercially for the Deep South."
http://odur.let.rug.nl/usa/H/1990/ch4_p3.htm

Slavery, which had up to now received little public attention, suddenly assumed enormous importance - "like a fire bell in the night," in Jefferson's words. In the early years of the republic, when the northern states were providing for immediate or gradual emancipation of the slaves, many leaders had supposed that slavery would die out. In 1786, Washington wrote that he devoutly wished some plan might be adopted "by which slavery may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees." Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and other leading southern statesmen made similar statements. As late as 1808, when the slave trade was abolished, there were many southerners who thought that slavery would soon end.

The expectation proved false, for during the next generation, the south became solidly united behind the institution of slavery as new economic factors made slavery far more profitable than it had been before 1790.

Chief among these was the rise of a great cotton-growing industry in the south, stimulated by the introduction of new types of cotton and by Eli Whitney's invention, the cotton gin, for separating the seeds from cotton. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution, which made textile manufacturing a large-scale operation, vastly increased the demand for raw cotton. And the opening of new lands in the west after 1812 greatly extended the area available for cotton cultivation. Cotton culture moved rapidly from the tidewater states through much of the lower south to the Mississippi River and eventually on to Texas.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Sat Apr 14, 2012 2:10 pm

Well, there it is. Thanks.
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Sun Apr 15, 2012 6:12 am

John F wrote:You're grasping at straws, or at cotton bolls. :)
I don't think so--actually it's you for indicating one shouldn't visit famous and worthy tourist attractions because they happen to be in Mississippi! Regards, Len :wink:

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Sun Apr 15, 2012 6:19 am

jbuck919 wrote:by Eli Whitney's invention, the cotton gin,
Thanks for the info--I'll stay out of Connecticut tourist sites too--how dare they let the eli whitney museum exist--Yale should move out of the state! :)

http://www.eliwhitney.org/

However I ain't giving up private Connecticut gardens no matter how much harm eli whitney caused! Regards, Len :)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Sun Apr 15, 2012 8:03 am

lennygoran wrote:
John F wrote:You're grasping at straws, or at cotton bolls. :)
I don't think so--actually it's you for indicating one shouldn't visit famous and worthy tourist attractions because they happen to be in Mississippi! Regards, Len :wink:
Famous? I never heard of it before. Worthy? Sez who? A residence built with tainted money and forced labor merely for the owner's ease and to show off his wealth doesn't fit my idea of worthiness. I'm not saying one shouldn't visit Mississippi, only that one ought to have better reasons. Craig Claiborne did. (Back on topic!)
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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Sun Apr 15, 2012 8:15 am

John F wrote:
lennygoran wrote:
John F wrote:You're grasping at straws, or at cotton bolls. :)
Famous? I never heard of it before. Worthy? Sez who? A residence built with tainted money and forced labor merely for the owner's ease and to show off his wealth doesn't fit my idea of worthiness. I'm not saying one shouldn't visit Mississippi, only that one ought to have better reasons. Craig Claiborne did. (Back on topic!)
A perfect day in Mississippi might include a visit to that plantation in the morning--it looks super!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jstephenconn/2870782181/

"Built by Haller and Julia Nutt, 1860-1861, Longwood is said to be the grandest octagonal house in America. Unlike the other Natchez mansions, which are primarily in the Greek Revival style, Longood is a superb example of mid-19th century Oriental style. "

Then a hunt for a nice garden stroll maybe loaded with azaleas or camellias in bloom--then a finish at a comfort food style restaurant with talk of our next day activities on the very famous Natchez trail as we make our way toward New Orleans!

Regards, Len

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Apr 15, 2012 2:03 pm

lennygoran wrote:Thanks for the info--I'll stay out of Connecticut tourist sites too--
:lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: Boy did I ask for that.

I once wrote an Ivy League category quiz for FunTrivia.com in which I gave four choices for why Yale students are called "Elis." The best plausible distractor was alumnus Eli Whitney. (In fact, it comes from the founder, Elihu Yale.)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by lennygoran » Mon Apr 16, 2012 4:49 am

jbuck919 wrote: Boy did I ask for that.
That's right--sure we can get on Nutt's case over cotton and boycott his plantation but what about Elihu Yale's connection to cotton--definitely time for a boycott of Yale!

"In 1718, Cotton Mather contacted Yale and asked for his help."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elihu_Yale

Regards, Len :)

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Re: Craig Claiborne biography: a cautionary tale

Post by John F » Mon Apr 16, 2012 7:24 am

lennygoran wrote:definitely time for a boycott of Yale!
I'll drink to that. :mrgreen:
John Francis

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