Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Whew...it's been a while. Apologies to all. I've been in ferment.

Like bread dough, or wine, I suppose. Anyhow: I've finally been persuaded by my literary agent, David McCormick, whose judgment I esteem highly, that now is not the time to try to sell my memoir. "Market conditions," doncha know. Plus there's what my non-soft-spoken publisher said to me when I first raised the idea to her: "Look, Tom, you're not famous and you're not a drug addict." Okay, okay.

What David has wanted me to do all along is either a food book or a biography--to take advantage of the success of my Alice Waters book. Well, what I've finally stumbled on is both: the life story of Craig Claiborne.

I know, I can hear the sound of heads being scratched from here. Who? Well, if you're from New York and you're old enough, or you're in any part of the food universe, of course you know who he was. For those of you outside those categories: He created the food universe as we know it. As the first food critic and food editor of the New York Times, he was all-powerful, and seemingly all-knowing. Actually, rather than belabor this, I think I'll just cut and paste a little short piece I wrote about him in 1999 for Saveur magazine:

"As food editor of The New York Times for over thirty years, Craig Claiborne famously did whatever the hell he wanted to do. In 1957, when he started, New York was tyrannized by a handful of stuffy French restaurants that really weren't very good, and on April 13, 1959, Claiborne socked them in their collective nose: ELEGANCE OF CUISINE IS ON WANE IN U.S., ran his headline--on the front page of the Sunday Times.

"One reason for that waning may well have been how few Americans really cared what they ate. It was the age of frozen TV dinners, tuna casseroles, miniature marshmallows, Jell-o. Claiborne was a natural esthete and a Swiss-trained chef, and he was appalled. But he was also thoroughly American. He did love the classic haute cuisine of Henri Soulé's legendarily snobbish Le Pavillon, but he also loved great Chinese cooking, and Italian, and Mexican, and Spanish, and Southern. He recognized that people who love good food are bound together across cultures and through time, and that the wildly various gene pool of America put us in a uniquely privileged position, if only we would seize the opportunity.
"Craig Claiborne embodied the equal opportunity of excellence wherever bred. He brought rigor to restaurant criticism, with the first use in this country of a rating system and a clear understanding of the techniques, the ingredients, and the artistry that must be combined in true culinary excellence. In The New York Times Cookbook Claiborne simply put the food that he liked best, and damn the distinctions of foreign and domestic, high and low.

"His writing for the Times came to embody a way of life, in which cooking and eating seemed always to take place in the context of friendship. Claiborne's kitchen on Long Island became a theatre of celebration, to which an invitation was both a command and a delight. Penelope Casas, Marcella Hazan, or Diana Kennedy might whip up a feast while Claiborne clattered away on his big IBM typewriter, laughing and sipping champagne. The great chefs of the world would answer the summons to East Hampton, and the event, as Claiborne would report it, was less a cooking lesson than a party. His friendship with the former chef of Le Pavillon, Pierre Franey, led to many years of collaboration; that friendship was so deep that when the Times, in 1972, declined to give Franey equal credit for the work he shared with Claiborne, Claiborne quit.

"When he returned to the paper two years later, the by-line would read, "By Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey." When Claiborne, with a $300 bid in a charity auction, won a dinner for two anywhere in the world with no limit on the cost, it was Franey he took along. With intricate planning and a host of elderly wines, they managed to spend $4000 in a tiny Paris bistro. The meal made the front page and met with outrage and wonderment worldwide. It wasn't really all that good, Claiborne cattily confided. And the Times hadn't even known he was going until he filed his story.

"Craig Claiborne wanted America to become a good place to eat, and as usual he got his way. I wonder what he's having for dinner tonight."

Pretty sappy piece. Makes no mention of the darkness that haunted him from childhood on. Claiborne was gay when being out was out of the question, and it troubled him deeply. His last years were spent in misery, isolation, and an alcoholic fog (he died in 2000). He thrived on friendship, and then all of a sudden, after years, would inexplicably blow off a friend forever. The more I learn about him, the more complex and self-contradictory he becomes. He really does seem like a character from Shakespeare, heroic one moment, contemptible the next, blind to himself, then suddenly acutely self-knowing. It's going to be a doozy of a project.

Best of all, John T. Edge, the redoubtable head of the Southern Foodways Alliance--part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, based at Ole Miss--has introduced me to a former graduate student of his who spent two years researching her thesis on...Craig Claiborne. Georgeanna Milam Chapman grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, not far from Memphis, so we both know at least a later version of the world into which Claiborne was born. Morever, having been born in Sunflower, Mississippi, in 1920, he occupied precisely the social station and Delta culture that my father did, who was born only 35 miles away and seven years earlier.

There's going to be a big Claiborne powwow / celebration in New York on June 12, which John T. is piloting, and it seems as though everybody still alive who knew him is going to be there. Best of all, Georgeanna, despite having a baby just four months old, is coming too. (She's bringing her mama to help take care of the little girl.) It looks as though, assuming all goes well, Georgeanna's going to work with me on the book, and that will make the whole thing a great deal easier. And quicker. I should say less slow.

Meanwhile, I'm gearing up to head to Montana. I leave this coming Saturday, and about mid-morning as I near the Nevada line, my good ol' Techno-Violet 1996 BMW M3 will pass its hundred-thousandth mile. As I try do do every year, I will take at least part of the trip on obscure, winding roads--in this case a very obscure one north out of Elko, Nevada, to Mountain Home, Idaho, and then across central Idaho. That first leg from Elko is right at 200 miles and there's not even a gas station along the way. The M3 needs to breathe! at least once or twice a year.

Supposedly I was going to be there all of June and July in monklike seclusion, with Elizabeth joining me late in June. I was going to rise at dawn, or before, every day, and keep a journal as I did last year, except this year I was going to post it here. I'm still going to stick with that as well as I can, but now I've got to go to New York June 10-16 for the Claiborne powwow and associated stuff, and only a few days after I get back I'm off to Cleveland for my dear niece Dr. Kate Blumoff's wedding, and not long after that the Montana social whirl gets to whirling. All us summer folks catching up, dinner parties, picnics, etc.--you'd think it was the coast of Maine. And then we've got very welcome guests coming for a week in July: My best friend going all the way back to, I think, fifth grade, Bob Towery, and his wife, Patty. Somewhere in the midst of all that, I am determined to find some stillness, identify our daily-changing panoply of wildflowers, stand in the middle of Sweet Grass Creek and maybe catch a trout or two, climb into the Crazy Mountains and, this year, all the way to the top of Elephant Head Mountain, pick huckleberries and blueberries, get to know the sandhill cranes, whimbrels, godwits, curlews nesting out on the prairie....

Enough for now.