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Craig Claiborne (September 4, 1920 – January 22, 2000) was an American restaurant critic, food journalist and book author. A long-time food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times, he was also the author of numerous cookbooks and an autobiography. Over the course of his career, he made many contributions to gastronomy and food writing in the United States.
Born in Sunflower, Mississippi, Claiborne was raised on the region's distinctive cuisine in the kitchen of his mother's boarding house in Indianola, Mississippi.
He essayed in premedical studies at the Mississippi State College from 1937 to 1939 finding it to be unsuitable to him he then transferred to the University of Missouri where he majored in journalism and got his B.A degree
Claiborne served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Korean War. After deciding that his true passion lay in cooking, he used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend the École hôtelière de Lausanne (Lausanne Hotel School), located in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Returning to the U.S. from Europe, he worked his way up in the food-publishing business in New York City, New York, as a contributor to Gourmet magazine, a food-products publicist and finally becoming the food editor of The New York Times in 1957. Claiborne was the first man to supervise the food page at a major American newspaper and is credited with broadening The New York Times's coverage of new restaurants and innovative chefs. A typical food section of a newspaper in the 1950s was largely targeted to a female readership and limited to columns on entertaining and cooking for the upscale homemaker. Claiborne brought his knowledge of cuisine and own passion for food to the pages, transforming it into an important cultural and social bellwether for New York City and the nation at large.
Claiborne's columns, reviews and cookbooks introduced a generation of Americans to a variety of ethnic cuisines – particularly Asian and Mexican cuisines – at a time when average Americans had conservative tastes in food, and what little gourmet cooking was available in cities like New York was exclusively French (and, Claiborne observed, not terribly high quality). Looking to hold restaurants accountable for what they served and help the public make informed choices about where to spend their dining dollars, he created the four-star system of rating restaurants still used by The New York Times and which has been widely imitated. Claiborne's reviews were exacting and uncompromising, but he also approached his task as a critic with an open mind and eye for cooking that was different, creative and likely to appeal to his readers.
Inspired by food writers including M. F. K. Fisher, Claiborne also enjoyed documenting his own eating experiences and the discovery of new talent and new culinary trends across the country and across the world. Among the many then-unknown chefs he brought to the public's attention was the New Orleans, Louisiana, chef and restaurateur Paul Prudhomme. At the time, few people outside America's Deep South had any awareness of Louisiana's Cajun culture or its unique culinary traditions.
Along with chef, author and television personality Julia Child, Claiborne has been credited with making the often intimidating world of French and other ethnic cuisine accessible to an American audience and American tastes. Claiborne authored or edited over twenty cookbooks on a wide range of foods and culinary styles, including some of the first best-selling cookbooks dedicated to healthy, low-sodium and low-cholesterol diets. He had a long-time professional relationship and collaborated on many books and projects with the French-born New York City chef, author and television personality Pierre Franey.
In 1975, he placed a $300 winning bid at a charity auction for a no-price-limit dinner for two at any restaurant of the winner's choice, sponsored by American Express. Selecting Franey as his dining companion, the two settled on Chez Denis, a noted restaurant located in Paris, France, where they racked up a $4,000 tab on a five-hour, thirty-one-course meal of foie gras, truffles, lobster, caviar and rare wines. When Claiborne later wrote about the experience in his New York Times column, the newspaper received a deluge of reader mail expressing outrage at such an extravagance at a time when so many in the world went without. Even the Vatican and Pope Paul VI criticized it, calling it "scandalous." It was also noted that he and Franey ordered nearly every dish on the menu, but they took only a few bites of each one. Despite its scale and expense, Claiborne gave the meal a mixed review, noting that several dishes fell short in terms of conception, presentation or quality.
Claiborne was a fixture of the New York City social scene for decades. His lavish, celebrity-studded birthday parties at his East Hampton, New York, estate on eastern Long Island were a regular event on the Manhattan social calendar. Although he was out as a gay man to most of his friends and colleagues, he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. In his autobiography, A Feast Made for Laughter (1982), Claiborne described a bizarre, almost Faulknerian, childhood and adolescence in small-town Mississippi where he was mocked by schoolmates for his meek temperament and dislike of sports and had explicit sexual contact with his own father on at least one occasion. His mother was a warm and very genteel Southern lady, but doting and often overprotective of her young son. The young Claiborne often sought solace in the company of his mother's African-American kitchen and housekeeping staff, whose food, humor and culture he came to love.
Claiborne, who suffered from a variety of health problems in his later years, died at age 79 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, New York. No cause of death was given. In his will, he bequeathed his estate to The Culinary Institute of America, located in Hyde Park, New York.
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