I just finished reading the new biography on Craig Claiborne, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance. The book is certainly an unvarnished look at Claiborne's rather turbulent life, but the sections of the book that I found most interesting were those that focused on Claiborne's passion for food and cooking. And really, that's what I want to remember most about him.
The book's author wrote that upon Claiborne's first retirement from The New York Times, the food critic set out to write and publish his own Craig Claiborne Journal. That endeavor, however, was put on the back burner after Claiborne met an accomplished Chinese cook living in New York, Mrs. Virginia Lee. Claiborne was so taken with Mrs. Lee that not only did he take Chinese cookery classes from her, he also coauthored The Chinese Cookbook with her. In fact, the book is still considered to be one of the definitive works on Chinese cooking.
Funny enough, just a few days ago I happened to find an article on Claiborne and Lee in a 1971 issue of House & Garden. Talk about fortuitous timing. The article shows Claiborne and Lee in the kitchen (could it be Claiborne's kitchen in East Hampton?) preparing a seven dish Chinese luncheon for ten guests. Lee noted that "The advantage of a Chinese meal is that so much can be prepared in advance and refrigerated, then just brought to room temperature before cooking quickly in a Chinese wok." The menu included Aromatic Spiced Beef, Chinese Chicken with Nuts, Snow Peas and Straw Mushrooms, Steamed Flounder, Lettuce Packages, Smoked Duck, and Best Fried Rice. Sounds like quite a feast, and a delicious one at that. And after looking at the article's photos, I think that one can really see the camaraderie between Claiborne and Lee.
While I've never considered cooking a Chinese meal at home before, I have to say that after reading both the Claiborne biography as well as this House & Garden article, I am now inspired to try my hand at it. Not all seven dishes, mind you, but perhaps just one. No need to bite off more than I can chew.
All photos from House & Garden, July 1971.