The First Foodie

It was in tapioca-pudding times, before lemongrass and Cuisinarts, before crème brûlée and chefs as matinee idols. I followed Craig Claiborne’s stars, worshiping in his wake. One day, the sour cream in my zucchini gratin curdled. I called the Times food department for help, and to my shock the deity himself picked up the phone, with a slightly clipped but decidedly Southern accent: “Lower the temperature,” he suggested.

Smitten, I persuaded Look magazine to let me profile him. Invited to lunch at his home in East Hampton, I watched him stand pecking away at his typewriter on the kitchen counter while Pierre Franey hacked the lobster for our soufflé Plaza Athéneé. He could grab Pierre’s hand to measure, translating a shower of salt or a fistful of flour into quarter-cups and teaspoons for the recipe that would appear in the Sunday Magazine some weeks later.

I have a photo of us dancing to West Side Story. He was singing along to the record with extravagant gestures. After dinner one night, over stingers, his passion, he announced: “You and I have much in common. We both love men. But I prefer older men. And unlike you, I find love icky, disgusting… .” A few years later, in spite of himself, he did fall in love, dizzyingly, babblingly.

Craig created the commandments of serious restaurant criticism. He changed the way we cook and the way we eat: the twenty cookbooks, the chefs he crowned, the tastes he unleashed – for Sichuan pepper and jalapeños, tangy citrus sorbets, pilgrimages in Parisian truffle fields.

Ailing after heart surgery, he grew increasingly frail in recent years and spent days in his bed at the Osborne on 57th Street, though he was able to get to Zarela for dinner and his day nurse often wheeled him down the block for lunch at Trattoria del’Arte. Few friends called. Articles documenting America’s love affair with food did not mention him. Two years ago, The New Yorker referred to him as “the late.”

He could be cranky, but he was always happy to see people. Ten longtime pals gathered at Shun Lee two Chinese New Years ago in his honor. He nodded and smiled, ate and didn’t say much, but his passion for propriety sparked him suddenly to chide the waiter: “It’s not proper etiquette to clear plates when people are eating.” After the fifth course, he announced he was ready to go home.

The First Foodie