Sunday, June 14, 2009

Craig Claborne

One of the main driving forces in the American culinary revolution was Craig Claiborne. Unfortunately, his legacy does not seem to get the same accolades as Julia Child, James Beard, and MFK Fisher. While his contributions go mainly unsung, he fundamentally changed how food and cooking are written about.

In the long ago dark ages of gastronomy in the US, the only coverage of food was relegated to what was referred to as the "Ladies Section". The stories were mainly recipes and cooking tips, not the realm of serious journalism. Restaurant reviews were mostly seen in the society pages, more concerned with whom was eating where, than whether the food was worth eating. In 1957, this began to change when Craig Claiborne was named food editor of the NY Times.

Food started to get serious coverage in the NY Times just as the NY Times was becoming The New York Times. Craig covered Michelin both starred chefs and home cooks with the same journalistic gusto. His coverage launched the careers of many a chef. He began to review restaurants with a degree of rigor. He was one of the first, if not the first, to actually talk to the chef. A notion that was completely novel at the time.

A bit of scheduling serendipity turned last week into Craig Claiborne week in NYC. Thursday night, The New School featured a panel discussion on Craig as part of its Culinary Luminaries series. This was followed on Friday by the Southern Foodways Alliance's celebration of Craig on Friday.

The New School event was quite interesting. Noted food writers recalled their personal relationships with Claiborne as well as discussing his impact and legacy. The Southern Foodways Alliance celebration was just that, complete with Champagne and bourbon. Jacques Pepin related many stories of his long relationship with Claiborne. Others, such as noted restaurateur Zarela Martinez, talked about what a huge impact Claiborne had on her personal and professional growth. Everyone left a little teary eyed, maybe even a little tipsy, but certainly more appreciative of Craig Claiborne's legacy.

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