May 9, 2012 | Short Order

When Craig Claiborne Was God and King


Craig Claiborne was a god, my hero, my idol. Even non-food-obsessed New Yorkers looked to his Friday restaurant review in the New York Times as gospel. My husband Don would go out to pick up the early edition of Friday’s Times at eleven o’clock on Thursday night and drop into his big green club chair to study what news had been deemed fit to print by the competition.


I sat on the floor at Don’s feet—we were always in the same few square feet of space in those early days. (Actually, I liked typing on the floor, my old Royal upright sitting on an atlas, my legs folded Indian-style.) Never mind the headlines, for years I had turned immediately to see what Craig loved or hated. I would give anything, I often thought, to live his life, being paid to eat, being sent overseas with unlimited funds to explore exotic cuisines. I lived his life vicariously through his writing. Craig was always going off to France. He was among the first to hit the dumpling parlors of Beijing when Nixon opened China. He even braved Vietnam during the war, oblivious to politics, properly focused on what to eat on the lemongrass trail.


Restaurant criticism was not the raucous gang bang it has become. There were not swarms of critical gullets in media yet to be invented. And Zagat had not marshaled amateur critics and built their bleats and raves into a media empire. Every New Yorker over the age of six did not consider him or herself a restaurant critic as we do today. True, James Beard had a syndicated food column. There was Clementine Paddleford writing about food in the Herald Tribune. And the Post had a pathetic column lauding restaurants that advertised in its pages.


          I felt a deep, spiritual connection to Craig—fussy, uptight southerner that he seemed to be, he was unabashedly passionate about food. Before Julia, and even after, I used his first “New York Times Cookbook.” His recipes were so modest and plain and undemanding, rarely more than half a page in the book or a paragraph on the Times food page, unlike Julia’s meticulous, detailed, hand-holding gastrotherapy.


Cooking his recipes was as close as I could get to Craig. His boeuf bourguignon, redolent with red wine and caramelized shallots, was a guaranteed triumph. Redolent was a Craig word. And the shallot to me was a new, sophisticated onion, unheard of in my mom’s primitive Detroit pantry.


Once when the sour cream curdled in a baked zucchini recipe clipped from the Times and followed religiously, I dialed the newspaper and asked for counsel. I was stunned when he took the call. Himself. Craig Claiborne, with that Mississippi drawl. “Sour cream will break up if the temperature is too high,” he said. Of course. How naïve could I be? In my haste, I’d turned the flame too high. My respect for Craig, the New York Times, and sour cream swelled like a popover.


I was a stalker. Not literally (although it might have been a kick going through Craig’s garbage), but I did follow in his footsteps, trailing his stars. I was nervous stepping into Pearl’s, the midtown den where the smartly dressed Pearl Wong ruled haughtily over her loyal clan of Time, Inc., and Seventh Avenue pets (some of them her financial backers). Word had it that she was a master of snobbery, as arrogant as any French restaurateur. But Craig loved chef Lum’s mythic lemon chicken and yook soong, the chicken–water chestnut–red pepper mix to eat wrapped in iceberg lettuce leaves. So I went early one day all by myself, before the lunch wave hit, Craig’s review in hand. The maître d’ looked as if he wanted to refuse me a table. I berated myself for not spending more money on shoes. But since the room was an empty sea of white, I got a tight little two-top table and ordered everything Craig had singled out for praise in his review—all the spicy, peppery, gingery, chili-detonated stir-fries he loved.


“Very spicy,” the waiter warned as he took my order.


“I like spicy. Give me Craig Claiborne spicy,” I said. I dropped a chopstick load of Szechuan beef with bits of tree ear and lotus root into my mouth and gasped. Oh yes. It was spicy. The shrimp was a killer, too. I choked and sneezed and coughed, tears running down my face.


“Something wrong, lady?” the maître d’ asked.


“No,” I said, wiping my cheeks and my forehead. “It’s wonderful. It’s perfect.”


I had to find a way to meet Craig. I was more than just a fan, after all. I was a writer. I would write a profile of the great Times critic. How could Claiborne resist? I pitched the idea to an editor at Look magazine and he gave his blessings. Craig seemed amused, even pleased, by the idea of a profile in Look. He agreed I should start by coming along on a reviewing lunch to see how he did it. We met downtown in the Village at a funky little Spanish restaurant. Craig was fussy and proper and very southern, just like he sounded in the Times, scolding the waiter in his soft, rolling drawl because the plates weren’t warmed.


I tried not to seem gauche. “Oh yes,” I said, feeling the plate with the back of my hand as if it were a loved one’s fevered brow. We were the only customers in this little joint with its one waiter. I am sure he had never heard of warming plates, but he warmed them.


I was deeply impressed by Craig’s seriousness. He told me how he had suffered that week, agonizing over the stars he awarded—very rarely four, but sometimes three, many twos, and often one. “I was up all night, tossing and turning, trying to decide if I’d given the Gaiety Delicatessen three stars instead of two because [his bosses] Abe Rosenthal and Arthur [Gelb] like the Gaiety. Or does the place deserve it?” He crinkled his nose as if to say, Silly, isn’t it? All that fuss over a deli. But I could hear the anguish in his voice.


Craig thought it was important for me to see the yin and yang of his territory as a critic. He’d long ago given three stars to Quo Vadis, a clubby, upper-crust spot in the Continental style, and he thought I should taste its superior food. There was much racing about with platters of the daily specials to tempt him. At his side on the banquette, I basked in the aura of such unctuous ooze. Would Mr. Claiborne like that sautéed in butter? No butter. Olive oil? A new oil has just arrived from Tuscany, smuggled in by a cousin. (No one spoke of virgins or extra-virgins in those simpler, less promiscuous times.) A little puddle was poured so Craig could taste. He ignored it.


Gino and Bruno danced their pas de deux for Craig now in the antimacassar parlor elegance of chintz and crystal and clichéd bronzes on marble pedestals below the fabulous painted palazzo ceiling. I was wowed by the fondue Bruxelloise—deep-fried batter-wrapped pockets of creamy cheese, sprinkled with a shock of fried parsley. But I noticed that Craig seemed seriously disturbed by his anguille au vert—eel poached in white wine and mulched in fresh herbs. “It needs salt,” he said. I tasted. Indeed. When Craig grabbed a salt shaker and corrected the lapse, I could see both owners go white.


A shallow copper cocotte of kidneys Bercy was presented for Craig’s nod, sauceboat alongside.


“Enough,” Craig said as Gino dished them out. “Enough. No, that’s too much.” He frowned. And to me: “So gross.”


Too much? Gross? I never knew there could be anything like too much. Too much was always just barely enough for me. But Craig ate very sparingly—savoring each morsel if it were properly seasoned and skillfully cooked. And the kidneys were splendid that day. He closed his eyes and smiled beatifically. He nibbled and sipped his wine, leaving a third of the kidneys on his plate, as if he was actually full. Full, that was another new concept for me. Life was never about full. It was about “Oh my god, how delicious this is.”


 I would soon realize it was drinking that gave Craig his neat little potbelly. He loved his martinis, fine wine in beautiful crystal, and, oh, those margaritas (only fresh-squeezed lime would do for his perfect margarita). I wrote down the recipe, looking forward to thrilling my friends at my next brunch with the perfect margarita.


Look’s photographer and I drove out to Craig’s weekend house on Long Island to shoot him and onetime Pavillon chef Pierre Franey preparing a recipe for their Sunday Times Magazine column. I was beside myself with anticipation—Craig Claiborne and the great Pavillon chef cooking for me. Craig lived in a modest two-story prefab that he’d bought from a catalog and parked alongside a modest pool with great views of Gardiner’s Bay in the Springs, that low-frills exurb of East Hampton where so many painters worked, not far from where Jackson Pollock was buried.


A devotee of what soup opera got covered in the very staid New York Times, I knew Pierre Franey had stunned Manhattan’s close-knit colony of Gallic expatriates by quitting the mythic Le Pavillon (the ultimate great restaurant of its time). He’d felt slighted by Soulé and left for Howard Johnson’s and more money, where, Craig reported to me, he was contentedly upgrading the canned gravy and stews, and was the genius behind HoJo’s ginger ice cream. Was Howard Johnson’s coffee ice cream uniquely brilliant? It was, I learned, because Pierre had insisted they use espresso coffee. Indeed, Claiborne-Franey recipes occasionally might call for a can of Howard Johnson’s gravy, a veritable sauce espagnole by any other name.


Pierre had been the invisible eminence in Craig’s recipes for a long while and ultimately came to share the byline on their Sunday column. On this afternoon, he bustled about Craig’s open kitchen—a sturdy, suntanned Frenchman, fiftyish and sexy, with emphatic black brows and that flirtatious manner that seems to run in French genes. His intimates and maybe the world knew that Craig was gay, and everyone not in their immediate circle of intimates wondered if Pierre was gay, too. It was clear to me that Craig adored him. Pierre stabbed some lobsters, flamed them in cognac, and began to create a soufflé Plaza Athénée—the classic layering of lobster and grated Gruyère with cream and whipped egg whites that would balloon in the oven and brown into a glorious cloud.


Craig stationed himself on a stool at the counter in front of his portable typewriter, counting the eggs as they cracked and occasionally grabbing Pierre’s hand so he could measure how much flour or how much salt the chef was about to toss into the bowl. As dinnertime neared, Craig began pouring Dom Pérignon into Baccarat crystal flutes for all of us. Still freshly hatched and an ingenue in the world of the grape, I was not used to drinking from a flute. The fragile crystal in my bridal trousseau included saucer goblets for champagne. (I’d grown up with the myth that a perfect breast would fit into a champagne goblet, and mine were embarrassingly Burgundy balloons. Certainly the flute banished that conundrum.)


Betty Franey arrived with the three little Franeys. I figured they were all haute chowhounds. “Oh, if only,” she said. Jacques, at five, would eat only canned SpaghettiOs and hot dogs, she confided. She flashed me a quick glance of the Entenmann’s chocolate cake hidden in her bag for the kids’ dessert. “Don’t let Craig know,” she whispered. “He’d have a fit.”


I didn’t see what the children did with their soufflé. Maybe they didn’t get any. Maybe they hid it under a leaf of lettuce. There were two billowing, glazed, picture-perfect poufs—one for the five of them, one for me and the photographer—each bite a savory surprise, every mouthful different: a fragrant fluff cloaking a chunk of lobster, an ooze of cheese-scented cream, or a pungent patch sporting a crunch of crusted Parmesan. It was as complex as T. S. Eliot on the plate.


After dinner, Craig was still pouring, cognac and brandy now. He played recordings of Broadway musicals from a huge collection of everything I’d ever heard of, played them loud, and when West Side Story began, he had to dance. “Maria. Maria, Maria.” He knelt at my feet, acting it out. He danced with me and then he danced off alone. And when he tumbled down the spiral staircase, blood running from a cut on his head, he laughed as if delighted. He’d drunk enough to blur the pain.


We left for the long drive home. I felt flushed and manic. My heart was racing. I was high on soufflé and champagne in Baccarat crystal and my glimpse into this rarefied world. Only later did I learn that Craig had spent the next few hours in the emergency room. My profile ran in Look that August, just weeks before Clay Felker summoned me to be the restaurant critic at his brand new New York.


This excerpt from "Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess" may not be reprinted without permission from Grand Central Publishing.


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