I’ve been picked up in a lot of places by a lot of different people, in a lot of different ways. I never expected to be picked up at a bus stop, by Craig Claiborne, in a jeep. Then again, I never expected to be picked up by Craig Claiborne. Food editor at The New York Times for over three decades, he stirred the tastes of a public that hungered for food that hadn’t been scientifically prepared by home economists. Thousands of columns and a dozen books fed kitchen hints and food facts to millions. We talked in his East Hampton home, a Michael Feinstein album playing in the background. The interview was punctuated by lunch and a call from his lover of eleven years.
Dan Perlman: How did a boy from Sunflower, Mississippi come to open up the world food?
Craig Claiborne: It started the first time I ever had food outside the south. It was at the Chicago World’s Fair. I had a bowl of jellied consomme with lemon juice and tabasco. It was the best thing I’d ever ate in my life.
DP: But you didn’t start out to be a food writers?
CC: No. I was in the Navy. Casablanca, in World War II. I got an invitation from a handsome, young lieutenant to a Moroccan home. I realized there was more to life than eating soul food. When I left the Navy, I was taking the Ile de France back. I had Turbot a l’Infante. I took one bite and my god, I was transmogrified. I decided, I’ve got to learn how to cook French.
DP: How did you start?
CC: My mother arranged for me to go to hotel school in Switzerland. When I got back, I applied to get a job from Gourmet magazine. I ended up doing PR work for food accounts.
DP: How did you get to the Times?
CC: In those days there were no male food editors in the United States. My job was to escort all the lady food editors in New York around, play footsie with them, and sell them ideas. I had gotten to know Jane Nickerson at the Times. When I heard she was leaving, I went back to the office and, if you’ll pardon the expression, closeted myself, and wrote a note saying, do you think The New York Times would consider hiring a man as a food writer?
DP: What did she say?
CC: I didn’t hear from Jane. So I called herup. She said she didn’t want to get my hopes up, but they’d consider me. They called me on vacation on Fire Island and said I got the job. I went back out to the beach and started crying, saying, what will you ever write a column about? I saw this guy hauling in a bluefish and I said, by god, I’ll write an article about bluefish.
DP: Did you?
CC: I stayed at The New York Times thirty three years, and sometimes four and five columns a week, and I never wrote a column on bluefish. I don’t like bluefish.
DP: Any favorite foods?
CC: I have a passion for hot dogs. Once a month I sneak off and have a hot dog, with sauerkraut. And Vietnamese spring rolls, called “cha gio”. I went to Saigon, in the middle of the war, just to learn to make that one dish.
DP: What’s changed in the world of food writing?
CC: Word processors. I can’t stand them. I spent three solid days writing about this trip to China, and the third morning I pressed the wrong button. I erased the entire thing. Twenty seven pages. Gone with the wind.
DP: What stands out about the trip to China?
CC: The most notable meal I ate was in Chengdu. They brought us this little thing, about that long and that big. I pick it up with my chopsticks and I said, “what is this?” She says, “the bull’s penis.” I ate the goddamn thing, but it was so unappealing. Not because it was a penis, I’ve had enough of those in my mouth, but it was just so awful to eat.
DP: Was it hard being gay at the Times?
CC: Everybody I’ve worked with knows I’m gay. All the people at the New York Times knows. The funny thing is, when my memoirs were published, Arthur Geld, who was the number two man at the time, it was his attitude to go into more detail about what it was like to be gay. It was never a problem.
DP: Did you have any concerns about coming out publicly in your memoirs?
CC: I had a funny experience. The only thing I cared about was my family. I went down to Mississippi. I said, “The reason I came down is to tell you that I’m writing my autobiography, and I’m going to talk about my homosexuality in it.” Nobody stopped eating, no dropped forks. My niece turned to my sister and she said, “Did you hear what Craig said, that he’s going to tell people he’s gay?” And my sister said, “Look, my daddy always told him to tell the truth.”
DP: What’s next for Craig Claiborne?
QW was a short-lived magazine, the first “glossy” published in NYC that covered gay and lesbian culture and events in the city, and the precursor to what was resurrected as LGNY and later Gay City News. Back in the day, we put things on floppy discs and just knew that we’d have them and be able to access them forever. I know I wrote quite a few columns for them, particularly a humor column, but this seems to be the only piece I have a printout of.