Enjoyable memoirs of a happy cook; A Feast Made for Laughter, by Craig Claiborne. New York: Doubleday. $17.95.
It is well known that Craig Claiborne is a great cook and food writer. Now he has shown that he can write a memoir that is humorous, entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Reading of his experiences from student days at a famous Swiss hotel school to a position as top critic of the New York restaurant scene does, of course, whet your appetite for some recipes, too, and he obligingly cooperates with 100 recipes of his favorite dishes. There is also a list for an all-inclusive, well-rounded collection of books on food.
The memoirs start in Mississippi, where Claiborne grew up in a family that enjoyed fine southern home cooking. There are several sensuous passages describing a childhood experience, but the memoirs in general, although personal , tell of a completely culinary career.
From the shrimp remoulade, ambrosia, and pecan pie of his mother's table to sophisticated restaurants around the world, the stories of food experiences continue into the Navy where he sampled the exotic foods of Casablanca.
There is the decision to attend the Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers' Association, and there was a stint at public relations in Chicago. In New York Claiborne worked at Gourmet magazine a short time, and for an even shorter time at the Waldorf Astoria.
In his modest, low-key manner Claiborne tells how he got to be the first man to be food editor of the New York Times and of his respect for Henri Soule of Le Pavillon, whom he considers the greatest and most influential restaurateur in America.
There are behind-the-scene descriptions at Le Pavillon that I found fascinating. They include stories of his colleague and friend Pierre Franey, whom he met in 1959 at Le Pavillon and with whom he produces many articles, recipes, and cookbooks.
There are descriptions of other great restaurants, with personality vignettes of the great chefs and owners. Claiborne has been credited over the years with helping to raise the standards of New York restaurants by his reviews and other writing.
Then there's the wonderful tale of the $4,000 dinner he won from American Express at Chez Denis in Paris - and stories of eating the poisonous fugu fish in Japan, of a banquet given him by the National Museum directors in Taipei, of a memorable Easter dinner in Greece, and of dining at the famous Moti Mahal in old Delhi, India.
Perhaps most fascinating of all are the stories of cooking sessions in his East Hampton, Long Island kitchen, a gastronomic crossroads where the great European chefs, as well as amateur cooks, have shown their skill.
When Craig Claiborne writes about food he makes the food and the recipe so appealing that people seldom think about his writing style. It is, however, the very best food writing of its kind, easy and lucid, without a lot of superlative adjectives.
Claiborne has spent most of his life writing about great cooking and about dining well, but he also respects ordinary dishes - such as chili con carne, hamburgers, and other home-cooked, family foods - when they are cooked well.
He has been food editor for the New York Times for 25 years, although he left the paper in 1971 for two years, and he and Pierre Franey continue to cook and write, producing numerous articles, recipes, and cookbooks.