Gael Greene Asks Us to Remember Craig Claiborne

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When the Barneys holiday windows went up last November, Gael Greene took exception to the absence of Craig Claiborne from the display, which featured food innovators and "personalities" past and present. Today, she uses her Fork Play newsletter to elaborate upon her displeasure, and to make the case for why Claiborne, a pioneering restaurant critic for The New York Times and the author of numerous cookbooks, should not be forgotten.

"Claiborne," Greene writes, "was our town's revered food power when James Beard was just a loveable cooking teacher and writer with no New York City outlet for his column. As Betty Fussell recently noted: 'Thanks to Craig a nation of Puritans discovered food was a pleasure, and like sex, you could do it at home.'"

When "a certain snobby department store, an emporium for arrivistes, unveiled their foodie-themed windows in November," Greene continues, she was "shocked. ... The first window featured 'The Innovators' -- James Beard, Julia, Thomas Keller, as steam emerging from a boiling pot. Thomas Keller hadn't scrambled an egg when Craig's passion for chili heat dared us to taste salsa."

Claiborne, who died in 2000 at the age of 79, was at least in good company: As Greene notes, "The pioneer innovator of the Quilted Giraffe, Barry Wine, was not there. I didn't find Larry Forgione or Anne Rozensweig or Elaine. Or me. I didn't stay around to count the rest. If Craig is in the Salon de Refusé, I guess it's an honor to join him."

Putting aside the fact that Elaine Kaufman had no more of a claim to innovative, high-quality food than Sandra Lee, whose frozen likeness did make it into the window, Greene's point is well-taken. Given the frenzied, nausea-inducing rush of so many of today's so-called chefs to attain celebrity and our culture's accompanying inability to recall anyone who didn't make their name on television or the Internet (or to keep track of those who do), it's sad but unsurprising that the collective consciousness -- much less a department-store window -- has no room for a man who did his most memorable work more than a quarter-century ago.

But then, Julia Child had also fallen somewhat out of fashion before the blogosphere and Nora Ephron came to her aid. Maybe what Claiborne needs is a film treatment -- and given his fascinating, tumultuous life, replete with father-son incest, lavish East Hampton parties, and sensational autobiography, it would certainly be easy enough to form a compelling narrative. Far easier, no doubt, than stomaching the image of a giant Sandra Lee, clad in a pink Snuggie and Food Network hyperbole.


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