On Craig Claiborne’s “A Feast Made For Laughter”

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How does a Craig Claiborne become a Craig Claiborne?

The best part of Craig Claiborne’s autobiography, “A Feast Made for Laughter,” a long out-of-print book that I picked up at Bonnie Slotnick’s used cookbook store in the West Village, is that the man himself–a man whose impact on American gastronomy is undeniable, whose tenure at The New York Times set the bar for all food journalism and criticism that followed–is that he himself doesn’t know.

It’s a brave book, a searing self-study, and yet it never fulfills its promise: how does a boy from Sunflower Mississippi, who notoriously shared a bed with his father when his family lost all their money, whose teacher called him a sissy in front of the whole class for not playing sports, whose relationship with his mother was so fraught that he eventually cut all ties with her completely become the preeminent food authority in the United States? How does a boy who’s so poor he walks to school every day, mortified that someone he knows will offer him a ride, go on to eat a $4000 dinner that makes the front page of The New York Times and is ultimately denounced by the Pope?

There’s no clear thread. If you’re to believe Claiborne’s account, he’s the Forrest Gump of food writers: bumbling along, he noshes his way through World War II, sampling his first French fare in Morocco; he parlays his military status into a stint at a hotel school in Switzerland which, later, gets him in the door at Gourmet Magazine where he becomes a receptionist, only after tending bar for a corrupt business owner who funnels cheap booze into the expensive bottles. The stories are memorable and yet they come at such a rapid pace you wonder if Claiborne is avoiding the deep self-analysis that’d make this book a classic instead of a long-forgotten relic.

Those who’ve read “The United States of Arugula” know the real story of Claiborne’s descent into alcoholism and solitude. It’s all hinted at here: he makes references about drinking too much, he tells the sad tale of his arrest for drunk driving in the Hamptons, he describes his own fatigue and malaise after traveling the world. But as personal as he gets–and there are moments that are brutally personal, particularly references to late night prowls for sex–the book struggles to reconcile Claiborne’s tortured personal life with his revered status as a food icon.

The tone shifts, as this relatively short book progresses, from one of pure naïvité to one of bemused entitlement. The Craig Claiborne narrating at the end of the book is not the same Craig Claiborne we meet at the start of the book; it’s as if the task of connecting all the dots is too much for him–instead of returning to the emotional core of the book, his severed family ties and the way food served to cover those wounds, he gives us a menu from that $4000 dinner and discloses that, for health reasons, he can no longer consume salt. The last sentence of the book is: “I no longer crave salt, I am enormously content with my loss of weight, but primarily, perhaps, I take understandable pride and pleasure in my feeling of well-being and in the knowledge that my new regime is an altogether positive way of living.”

This from a man who writes earlier in the book of his final confrontation with his mother: “I was quietly furious, emotionally embittered, and frustrated. It was not the frustration of the moment but an accumulation of emotions that had engulfed my body almost since birth…. It seemed to me that in this episode, it was as though scores of years, lives, hopes, generations of sons and mothers were involved in this evening at the Waldorf, a curious place for Southerners of that generation.”

No doubt, it was extraordinarily difficult for Claiborne to revisit these painful scenes from the past; but, as is often the case in art, that which is the most personal is also the most powerful. Here, within this book, is something truthful and real and yet Claiborne is afraid of it and he buries it with less compelling anecdotes–anecdotes which are amusing but not vital. Compare it to, say, M.F.K. Fisher who writes with such vitality and passion each paragraph pulses with life.

Still, I’m happy to have spent this time with Craig Claiborne. He’s a likable fellow; his story is a good one. I also enjoyed peering through the text: wondering, for example, why there was no reference to Claiborne’s life partner who, apparently, he met in the army? (I learned about him from Jacques Pepin’s autobiography which I thumbed through recently.)

His relationship with Pierre Franey, with whom he collaborated on all his New York Times recipes, is also strangely handled; Claiborne admits frustration that Franey got no credit for their collaborations (the byline was Claiborne’s) and yet why didn’t he fight for that earlier? And what of their falling out, an episode that provides a meaty section in “Arugula”–supposedly, their friends conjectured, Claiborne was a little in love with Franey. The brave Claiborne at the beginning of the book might deal with that issue head-on; the Claiborne at the end of the book quietly shuffles away.

His use of Franey, a murky subject, is only aggravated by other confessions of Claiborne’s: he talks about his quest for publicity, how, after inviting some of the world’s greatest chefs to Gardiner’s Island to cook a world class picnic, he telephones Life Magazine in hopes that they’ll send a photographer to capture him in this moment. They do.

Same with that $4000 dinner which he won in an auction on public television. When the auction was announced, Claiborne writes: “That part of my brain that was trained in public relations was vigorously triggered. Quicker than you can say Georges Auguste Escoffier I thought I could turn this offer to my own profit. I did not bid on that meal with visions of caviar and foie gras racing through my brain. My vision was, and cynicism be damned, that I could capture a few inches of space in one newspaper or another if I played the game right.”

That quest for celebrity, a curious confession for a man of such cache, opens a window into the troubled soul of our protagonist. It harkens back to one of the more powerful stories he tells at the start of the book. Claiborne’s parents, when they’re wealthy, employ several black workers to clean, cook and maintain their home. Craig develops a close bond with Blanche, the cook: “So Blanche’s kitchen became my playground… When Blanche fried chicken, I always got a piece of crisply cooked gizzard or a chicken wing to stay my appetite until supper.”

And then his world is shattered. Hugh, a servant, is vacuuming the living room while Claiborne is slumped in a chair. Hugh says, “Craig, lift your foot.” And young Craig Claiborne, age 13 or 14 years old, shoots back: “Hugh, as long as you live, don’t ever call me Craig again. I’m Mr. Claiborne.”

The aftermath was immediate. “An hour must have passed before I summoned the courage to push open the door of that kitchen. When I did enter, it was precisely as I had feared. Hugh was not there. Blanche was at the sink, her back to the room. Sally was wiping a kitchen counter. Neither of them spoke. I walked through the kitchen and out the back door.

“Blanche never held me again. And ever after I was Mr. Claiborne. Persona non grata in the world of my childhood, the place where I once had been hugged and loved. Even, perhaps, needed.”

That story, in many ways, is the story of the book. Craig Claiborne became Craig Claiborne by entering the world of the kitchen, reveling in its splendors, bonding with its inhabitants; and he brought down his own ruin by a lethal combination of entitlement and an ugly impulse towards self-destruction. It’s that eager, open younger Claiborne who turns a fierce eye on himself, who dissects his soul with the alacrity of PhD candidate in biology; and it’s that older, entitled Claiborne who cuts himself short, who concludes that while an unexamined life may not be worth living, a partially examined life is good enough.

Studying the battle of these two Claibornes makes for a very entertaining, revealing book, but it’s not a book that will be remembered. For his legacy, turn to his cookbooks–The New York Times Cookbook, especially. There Claiborne can hide behind his elegant, controlled text; his precise, pared-down recipes. The cat-and-mouse game of self-examination ceases and Claiborne is at peace with the world. There, hidden away, Claiborne lives on.

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