Recently, with friends, I feasted on burritos, salsa, chips, nachos and other culinary delights at a Mexican restaurant to celebrate our pals’ birthdays. The meal was as essential to the festivities — as much of a gift — as our friendship and birthday cards. We savored the coconut ice cream (delicious but not overly sweet). “The chips are good here,” one friend said, “they’re baked.”
Sipping my pina colada, I thought of the late Craig Claiborne, the gay writer and critic who taught Americans from sophisticated Manhattanites to small-town merchants and homemakers to appreciate food. Fifty years ago this month, Claiborne, who died in 2000 at age 79, began writing restaurant reviews for the New York Times.
Today, nearly everyone from foodies to baseball fans, takes pleasure in, ingests information about and critiques food, restaurants and all things culinary. My brother, who is straight and a great cook, is a Food Network devotee. Even I, never to be mistaken for America’s Top Chef, avidly read restaurant reviews.
But until Claiborne began writing for the Times, food wasn’t taken seriously as a cultural phenomenon — worthy of the same type of criticism as art, music, literature or the theater. Newspapers dismissively placed writing about food in the “society” or “women’s” pages. Restaurants weren’t reviewed as we think of reviewing now. Then, if you “reviewed” a restaurant, your meal was usually paid for by the eating establishment, and often the “review” was merely a puff piece extolling the eatery’s virtues.
He believed himself to be “a critic on a par with the paper’s critics of books, art, music and drama, and he was determined to bring to his work a rigor and gravity equal to theirs,” writes Thomas McNamee, author of “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance,” a just released biography of Claiborne.
Today, many publications have restaurant critics and all aspects of food – from the latest info on nutrition to the hottest trends in donuts to the best food trucks – are hot topics on social media. I can’t wait to check out the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, which, I just read in the Times, offered wedding guests milk shakes after Christine C. Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council wed her partner Kim M. Catullo.
Unfortunately, Claiborne, who enhanced dining for so many and appreciated the pleasures of both esteemed French restaurants and Chock Full o’ Nuts, came of age when it wasn’t at all easy to be gay. He grew up poor in the Mississippi Delta and had a difficult relationship with his mother (he didn’t go to her funeral). In his memoir, Claiborne alludes to having had a sexual relationship with his father, according to McNamee. Though, he was the paper’s restaurant critic and food critic, the Times was homophobic during much of his tenure there – especially during the 1960s.
Claiborne didn’t write in The Times or speak to anyone outside the paper of his friendships (sexual or platonic) with gay men, according to McNamee. “That isolation would change as the times changed, but in the early 1960s, the gay world even in New York – except in certain fields, such as dance, fashion and the stage – remained a world apart,” he writes.
One reason he was able to accept Claiborne’s sexuality, former New York Times managing editor Arthur Gelb told McNamee, “was that my wife, Barbara, was the daughter of S. N. Behrman, the playwright…but at the Times it was still a big deal.”
In 1980, Claiborne met the love of his life, the late Jim Dinneen, a married, retired physician. Though they traveled together for years, the lovers never lived together. (He couldn’t get Dinneen to leave his wife and children for him.)
As Pride season approaches, let’s raise a glass to Claiborne, who despite personal sadness, enriched our lives.