Claiborne, My Mother, and Me

October 27, 2010 · 26 comments

I grew up in a culinarily conflicted household: my father loved food and what it meant, for all its gastro-cultural implications—it didn’t matter if it was high or low, rich or poor. My mother loved restaurants mostly for their social implications, and when I once asked her what she thought of the 21 Burger (served at the club she frequented in the late 1950s before she met my father) and whether it was as good as everyone swore it was, she just stared at me.

“They have a burger at 21?”

Anyway, growing up in the late 1960s and 70s with the Manhattan food scene in my backyard meant one thing: Craig Claiborne. We might have been bombing Cambodia; somebody might have been busting into Daniel Ellsberg’s office in the middle of the night; the Mets might have won the World Series; Armstrong might have walked on moon; Patty Hearst might have been calling herself Tanya Somebody-or-Other; but my father generally blew right past the front pages of the New York Times and went straight for Claiborne’s columns, which ran the gamut from feature stories on stellar home cooks (Marcella Hazan was one), to restaurant critiques, to instructions on how to make Eggs Sardou or Sweetbreads. The world, my father thought, could wait for the latest news story; it would not rest, however, until it read Craig Claiborne and learned how to make Shad and Roe Grenobloise or Lee Lum’s Lemon Chicken or Gigot au Pastis. It wouldn’t sleep unless it knew that the plum squab at Oh-Ho-So was worth the schlep down to West Broadway, or that the pasta primavera at Maxwell’s Plum didn’t have the consistency of spackle.

My father purchased Claiborne’s first New York Times Cookbook back in 1961, the year before he married my mother. Midway through their marriage, he bought a revised edition (co-authored with Pierre Franey) and gave it to his non-cooking wife. It sat on our living room bookshelf for years, and when they finally divorced, I claimed it, and it lived with me through four years of college, countless New York City apartments, a job at Dean & Deluca, cooking school, a move to Connecticut, and marriage. Other books have come and gone, and the black-jacketed, stained copy that I made off with when I realized that my mother cared about Craig Claiborne as much as I cared about Karl Lagerfeld‘s ponytail, has dipped in and out of bookshelf obscurity in my house, often being overshadowed by bright, four-color celebrity chef-authored tomes that assume I have a quart of glace de veau sitting in my freezer at all times (I do not). It’s been easy to forget, amidst a roiling sea of trend, how remarkable Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook was for its time, and — dated thought it may be in spots — still is.

Recently, I spent some time leafing through my old, falling-apart kitchen book—a faux-leather bound lab notebook I bought years ago at the Harvard Coop, and which I’ve pasted up with recipe clippings and articles, all from the Times. There are a slew of dishes from Molly O’Neill and Florence Fabricant, Johnny Apple and Mark Bittman, Marian Burros, and Amanda Hesser—all yellowing and dribbled upon and dog-earred despite the cellophane tape. There are a few hand-written, wine-stained scribbles citing things like Claiborne, pg 402, Picadillo, amazing. I clipped, cooked from, altered, adapted, sometimes mangled, and generally had my way with those recipes from the Times for years, and, like wallpaper you grew up with and just never paid attention to, totally took them for granted.

So when Susan’s gift of Amanda Hesser’s mind-boggling The Essential New York Times Cookbook showed up in the mail the other night, the timing was perfect; I had the flu, so I hunkered down on the couch and read every recipe—the best of the best, from Bittman and Burros, from Amanda herself, from Johnny Apple and Florence Fabricant, from early Times readers with names like Aunt Addie and Bob the Sea Cook, and from Claiborne—all 1400 of them. For hours. Many of them made me smile; some made me swoon; others—like Craig’s recipe for creamed onions—made me cry, and remember my father’s rapturous relationship with this man he never met, who made him proud to be a hungry New Yorker and a fanatical Times reader. And it made me go back to my old 1970s edition, which I hadn’t cracked open in a while.

In 1988, when Dean & Deluca moved from its original location at 121 Prince Street to 560 Broadway, we employees were allowed to invite two people each to the opening party; for reasons that escape me now, I gave my tickets to my mother and her second husband, Buddy, a furrier who loved good food as much as my father did. I stood at the back of the store in my apron while Buddy schmoozed Lauren Hutton at the front door.

“I think your mother has a new friend,” my colleague Gordon said, motioning over to where she was standing, about five feet away, near the Metro shelving piled high with Mauviel copper.

There he was: Craig Claiborne. Dressed in an impeccably tailored dark gray Chesterfield coat, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, he stood chatting with my mother, whose sable jacket was casually thrown around her shoulders.

What could they be talking about? Methods for preparing leeks vinaigrette?

“Come, my dear,” he said, linking arms with her. “Let’s go visit the lamb chops.”

They strolled over to the meat case, bent down, and peered in; Craig gazed at the prenatally tiny ribs while my mother, not sure what she was looking at—or with whom—stared down a pork loin.

“I met the nicest man,” she told me when the party was over, and we were walking to Raoul’s, down the street, for dinner.

“He says he’s a food writer.”

{ 2 trackbacks }

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 sam fromartz October 27, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Great great piece. Thanks for writing it!

2 Elissa October 27, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Thanks Sam–!

3 Scotty Harris October 27, 2010 at 5:31 pm

The NYT cookbook was the only one we had in my first restaurant kitchen. still own a copy of his original.

4 Melanie Rehak October 27, 2010 at 11:43 pm

What a great, great essay. I also grew up in NYC in the 70s and remember forays to Prince Street and the original D&D. I have the 1961 NYT Cookbook and I swear by it still (though I’m loving the new one, too!). This was such a pleasure to read.

5 Elissa October 27, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Thanks for writing Melanie-

6 Julie October 28, 2010 at 9:11 am

Great article, even more so because I picked up my own copy of Craig Claiborne’s NY Times cookbook this past weekend (a 21st birthday present from my father oh so many years ago) to find a recipe. Even though I live in the NYC, what did I want to make? Homemade bagels. Go figure.

Fabulous writing by the way.

7 dorie October 28, 2010 at 9:30 am

This is wonderful beyond words. If you wrote about how slowly grass grows I’d read along, but this is a subject so near to my heart. Like your father, as soon as I got my hands on The Times I turned to Claiborne, knowing that at some point during the week I would make whatever the recipe was that he ran in the Sunday Magazine. I credit Claiborne with teaching me how to cook.

And like you, I am entralled with Amanda Hesser’s new book. It is monumental and monumetally wonderful.

Thank you so much for this terrific story.

8 Elissa October 28, 2010 at 9:32 am

Thank you so much for your kind words Dorie–I grew up thinking that Craig was just some guy who lived with us, but who was never around…..

9 Monica Bhide October 28, 2010 at 9:45 am

Elissa- this is fantastic. Such a terrific story.

10 Suzi October 28, 2010 at 10:25 am

So lovely!
I remember the old Dean and Deluca, and can just imagine your mom there talking with Craig. Thanks for sharing this story. And thanks to Dori for Facebooking it.

11 Lana @ Never Enough Thyme October 28, 2010 at 10:35 am

I, too, loved Craig Claiborne. But for different reasons. Craig Claiborne was, like me, a child of the American South. His culinary roots were born in the kitchen of his mother’s boarding house. My personal copy of his “Southern Cooking” is dog-eared and stained from years of use. It is a fascinating compendium of traditional Southern American cuisine. Nearly every recipe is one that I remember and cherish from my own childhood. If I’m not cooking from it, I am re-reading his wonderful descriptions of life growing up in a small town in Mississippi and his first attempts at recipe creation.

If you have any interest in traditional southern cuisine, track down a copy of Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking. Even if you never cook a thing from its pages, it’s still a wonderful read.

12 Elissa October 28, 2010 at 10:38 am

Hi Lana, I’m looking at my copy as I write this! I’ve had it for years—-Thanks for writing.

13 Pat Fusco October 28, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Thanks so much for this beautifully written tribute to the man who was my hero when I learned to cook. His columns and features in the NYT and his cookbook(s) helped me through the mysteries of food shopping and turning out fine foods during my years in Manhattan. His curiosity about ethnic cuisines and “everyday” home cooks was an attribute that I so appreciated and later emulated when I began a career as a food writer, myself.

He isn’t praised or studied often enough these days. I am happy I was around to learn from him, and I envy your mother’s little adventure!

14 Ivy Manning October 28, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Miss Elissa

Oh what a grand tribute! I have a similar love of the NYT Cookbook. I lived in a home devoid of good food and found Mr. Claiborne’s book under the stairs of in our basement in a moldy box. I’m certain it was a long-forgotten Christmas gift, and I’m doubly certain that my mother never cracked it open. At the ripe age of 12, I found it and loved it, and still do, even though it still smells of mildew!

15 Cathy October 28, 2010 at 6:35 pm

What an absolutely lovely article.

16 Giovanna October 28, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Wonderful story, though it does make me sorry I grew up on the other coast and never saw the Times!

17 Geri J. October 29, 2010 at 2:49 am

Thank you so much for writing this! Growing up on the West Coast in the 1960s, I depended on Craig Claiborne and Julia Child to guide my cooking adventures. The Original New York Times Cookbook has been in my collection since before 1970; it is stained, dog-eared, and the covers are held on by rubber bands. I wouldn’t replace it for any amount of money. Why? Because the recipes are so thoroughly tested and so clearly spelled out that even the most intimidating recipe somehow became possible.

I knew the book was genius because as a college student, I made my first cheese souffle slavishly following the instructions — no innovation on my part. I had never even eaten one before, so I told all my friends to bring enough McDonalds money just in case it was horrible. A green salad, successful cheese souffle, and chocolate dessert later, we combined the money and sent someone out for a couple of bottles of wine to celebrate the evening.

It became my “go to” wedding gift for over 20 years. If you don’t have a copy, get one. You won’t be sorry.

18 Elle October 29, 2010 at 8:59 pm

What a wonderful tribute – I have to confess I was a “Craig Claiborne Groupie” for more years than I care to remember – I loved his books, his writing and most of all his recipes – never had the pleasure of meeting the man but he fed me and my family very well for years. Niow at nearly 90, I don’t cook as much as I used to but still some of his recipes appear for dinner every now and then.

19 Elissa October 30, 2010 at 8:52 am

Thank you so much for writing, Elle!

20 Warner November 5, 2010 at 10:07 am

The story goes that when he asked permission to call the book The New York Times Cookbook, the Times did not realize the value of it and gave him permission for free.

By the way the original and the one published in the 70s are significantly different books. My wife’s original copy, as with her original Vol I of Child, is in tatters. The stove gave her a clean copy of each for Xmas on different years.

First visit via http://cookingintheory.blogspot.com/

21 karen November 7, 2010 at 11:05 pm

I’m not a foodie, but I do love reading everything you write. Today, I strongly connected to one thing. For years, it seemed, our big family gatherings were always at Oh Ho So! I’ve not thought about that in forever. Thanks.

22 Deborah Rubin December 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm

My 1962 copy is truly falling apart and I still use some of my favorite recipes from both that book and ones I clipped when the Times had recipes almost every day. FYI – the newer versions don’t have the Glogg recipe.

I enjoy when you write about your father. He was very special.

23 Dori December 31, 2010 at 11:02 am

What a great story and so well written! I could just see your mom standing in D&Ds! I can imagine my mom doing the same thing as your mom –probably why they loved each other! My dad always knows the best reviewed restaurants to this day!!! Again, no wonder my dad loved your dad. It brought tears to my eyes.

24 Elissa December 31, 2010 at 11:21 am

Our parents adored each other—-thanks so much for writing Dori. Would love to see you soon and catch up on 30+ years. xx

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