Raymond Craig Claiborne was born on 4 September 1920 in Sunflower, in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. His father, Lewis Edmond Claiborne, moved the family to Indianola because of financial hardships, and Kathleen Claiborne, Craig’s mother, took in boarders to help make ends meet. Craig subsequently spent much time in the kitchen with his mother and the African American servants who prepared meals for the lodgers, sparking his passion for food and cooking.
After graduating from Indianola High School, Claiborne attended Mississippi State University, intending to study medicine. He later transferred to the University of Missouri and earned a degree in journalism. In the summer of 1942, less than one month after graduation, Claiborne joined the US Navy and served in World War II aboard the USS Augusta. After participating in the Moroccan invasion, Claiborne discovered French cuisine in Casablanca. When he returned to the United States, Claiborne briefly worked in advertising at the Chicago Daily News before moving to radio public relations. Bored, Claiborne used his savings to travel to France and rediscovered the cuisine. When he ran out of money, Claiborne rejoined the US Navy and served in the Korean War. After his discharge, he used the GI Bill to enroll in culinary school at L’École Hôtelière, L’École Professionnelle de la Société Suisse des Hôtelièrs near Lausanne, Switzerland, where the head chef of the famed Peabody Hotel in Memphis had trained.
Claiborne completed his schooling and moved back to the United States to work at Gourmet magazine, where he billed himself as the first restaurant critic who had culinary training. He became an editor at the magazine before realizing his dream of serving as food editor for the New York Times, the first male to hold that post.
Claiborne remained at the Times from 1957 to 1970 and 1974 to 1986, becoming recognized as one of the foremost figures in the culinary arts. He is credited with the four-star restaurant rating system that remains in use today and has been adapted for other fields. Claiborne authored and edited more than twenty cookbooks, the first of which was the New York Times Cookbook (1961), which sold more than three million copies. Another cookbook, Southern Cooking (1987), paid homage to his roots with more than three hundred recipes from across the region. Claiborne also published an autobiography, A Feast Made for Laughter (1982). Proud of its native son, Sunflower named two intersecting roads Claiborne Street and Craig Avenue.
Claiborne’s most outlandish stunt occurred when he paid three hundred dollars at a charity auction for dinner for two at the restaurant of the winner’s choice, sponsored by American Express. Claiborne took his friend and culinary collaborator, Pierre Franey, to Chez Denis in Paris, where they ran up a four-thousand-dollar bill on a meal consisting of thirty-one courses, many of which they merely tasted, and nine wines. After publishing an article on his night out, Claiborne received thousands of letters criticizing his extravagance, including one from the Vatican.
Openly gay, Claiborne never married or had any long-term partners. He died in Manhattan on 22 January 2000 at the age of seventy-nine, leaving his entire estate to the Culinary Institute of America.
- Georgeanna Milam Chapman, “Craig Claiborne: A Southern-Made Man” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 2008)
- Craig Claiborne, Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking (2007)
- Craig Claiborne, A Feast Made for Laughter (1982); John L. Hess and Karen Hess, The Taste of America (2000)
- Thomas McNamee, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the Food Renaissance (2012); Doris Witt, Black Hunger (1999)