Legitimizing food journalism: from Sunflower, Mississippi to The Big Apple

Craig Claiborne highway marker

Native son Craig Claiborne knew how to use his Mississippi heritage to his advantage. When interviewing for food editor at The New York Times, he made sure the interviewer, who held a degree from Mississippi State, knew that he, too, had attended Mississippi State. Claiborne, in  fact, stayed only one year at MSU and then went on to earn a journalism degree from University of Missouri. Image from VisitMississippi.org

I know about sports journalism, agricultural journalism, business journalism and photojournalism, but I never considered food journalism until I ran across Craig Claiborne’s name in a book about Jewish food in the South.  Claiborne, a small town Mississippi native like me, is considered by some the “father of food journalism.”  The more I learn about him, the more I want to know about food journalism – a field no one mentioned in journalism grad school at the University of Kansas in 1998. Kansans just don’t take food as seriously as Southerners — there’s no chance this field would’ve been neglected at the University of Mississippi.

Businessman holding fifour star rating.

Craig Claiborne devised a method for reviewing restaurants including multiple visits, anonymity and a star rating system.

Claiborne became the first male food editor in the 106-year history of The New York Times in 1957. He moved food (part of the Four Fs:  fashion, food, furnishings and family then included in a woman’s section) to a section of its own.  Food writing went from home economics tips and recipes to restaurant reviews and chefs. He covered topics from regional cuisine to international dishes and farmhouse cooks to celebrated chefs.  For restaurant reviews, he devised scientific criteria, including multiple dining trips, a star rating, and anonymity.  “He connected the home kitchen to the restaurant,” says Betty Fussell, former New York Times food columnist and author of Eat, Live, Love, Die.

He wrote 20 books, edited The New York Times Cookbook (1961) which sold over a million copies, and acknowledged Wolfgang Puck and Paul Prudhomme as rising stars. Cynics recall Claiborne’s 31-course $4000 Paris meal, compliments of American Express. The sly Claiborne had milked a $300 charity auction bid for an American Express dinner a for all he could get.

Others like John Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance point out Claiborne brought ethnic food into its own in America and edited the “first American cookbook with international scope.” Some even credit Claiborne for the current food revolution.  The James Beard Foundation presents numerous media and writing awards annually with the Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award one of its most coveted.

As a food writer, Claiborne ventured outside New York to visit homes of chefs and invited chefs to his home on Long Island.  One promising young chef who specialized in Creole-Cajun was John Folse, who created “Death by Gumbo” at Claiborne’s home in 1987. Folse, in 2004, wrote the ultimate guide in his field, The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine. It would have been fun watching the two cook this recipe in Claiborne’s home.  At my house, the aftermath of pots and pans from just one man cooking gumbo evokes another kind of death by gumbo.

Craig Claiborne

* Versions for serving 8serving 12

As for me, studying food journalism looks interesting because I enjoy learning. With at least 86 million consumers visiting food and cooking websites, an estimated 16,000 food blogs, and scores of print and broadcast journalists out there, it’s a growing but crowded field. As a Florida resident, the Food Writing and Photography online graduate certificate from University of South Florida in St. Petersburg would cost me $5700.  The Gotham Writers Workshop online food writing course costs around $400 for 10 weeks.

book cover

My best plan: take the $29.95 webinar from Poynter Institute taught by a USF instructor, check out some Craig Claiborne books from the library, and join the Association of Food Journalists. That ought to satisfy my craving for my food writing.




Left: A New York Times review of Thomas McNamee’s The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat salutes Claiborne as “The First Foodie.” The photo shows Claiborne’s trademark smile.



About thegumbodiaries

On the search for the perfect gumbo!
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2 Responses to Legitimizing food journalism: from Sunflower, Mississippi to The Big Apple

  1. Fascinating post, Diane! Love the humor. I can only imagine the aftermath of that gumbo marathon in your kitchen. I think you might have became a food journalist had there been a program when you were studying in college. Well, maybe you did it anyway!


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