Monday, October 26, 2009


I'm serious, I'm getting back into the blogging business.

I've just made a deal with the Free Press to write a book about Craig Claiborne, the first food editor of the New York Times. He was kind of the father of everything in the food world--before him there wasn't much but gray roast beef and canned green beans and a few not very good French restaurants.

What I'm planning to do with the blog is not so much to publish samples of my manuscript as to document the process of researching and writing the book. Right now all I've done is write the proposal that was sent around to publishers. Well, I say "all." My ruthless agent, David McCormick, kept me writing and re-writing the damned thing all through the summer and well into the fall before he'd even show it to anybody. I am, in the end, grateful to him, but it was an exhausting experience.

I've also been blessed with a singular piece of luck, in the form of a thesis on Claiborne written by Georgeanna Milam Chapman for her master's degree at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture. She did an amazing amount of research, and she has made the whole thing available to me. She is also going to be helping me as I go along, as is her major professor, the redoubtable John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance as well as a notable food writer. Georgeanna and John T. know a great deal about Claiborne--he was a Mississippi Delta boy--and they have both been wonderfully generous to me with their knowledge and their time.

I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and met with my new editor, Emily Loose, and we talked a bunch about all the "non-writing" aspects that are so important to a book's success these days. Literary purists don't love to think about this stuff, and I'm not perfectly comfortable with it myself, but it's the real world, and I remind myself about how artists in the Renaissance had to butter up popes and cardinals and so forth. 'Twas ever so, in fact. Anyway, in the last few days I've been working on this non-writing business, making lists of all the people whom I want to know about the book before it comes out, events we might tie it too, places I might try to publish an excerpt, and so on. Now I start lining up interviews: I'm going back to New York in a couple of weeks for that purpose--that's where many of the most important surviving witnesses to Claiborne's life are. (He died in 2000, at the age of 79.)

When I was in New York I also had dinner at Claiborne's favorite restaurant, Le Veau d'Or, which astonishingly is still there and unchanged. Even M. Treboux, the owner and host, 85 years old, is still there every night, rising creakily from his chair to greet every arriving party, "Bonsoir, madame, bonsoir, monsieur." The whole place is beautifully old and old-fashioned, and I had a meal that Claiborne would have ordered (I know this from his not very good memoir, "A Feast Made for Laughter") (more on that some other time): a martini; a bowl of cool vichyssoise sprinkled with chives; veal kidneys in mustard sauce atop a really much too large mountain of rice (Claiborne detested overlarge portions); and--where else can you get this in New York?--floating island! Was it great? No. But it was fine, and it was a ride in a time machine. The crowd was elegant, civilized, and, so refreshingly, quiet. M. Treboux will be one of my first interviews.

Elegance. Civilization. Gentility. These are going to be some of the qualities Claiborne will evince in the narrative. He felt himself to be an antique in his lifetime, swept aside by waves of vulgarity. Was he...a fuddy-duddy? And in taking this on, and in espousing those values, am I, now, too, or becoming one? I'm not going to worry about it.

The popularity of Barack Obama, I believe, attests to the enduring appeal of elegance and gentility. But I digress.

Bye for now.

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