Edible Ink: The Real Deal on Southern Cooking
If you were to ask a chef today who Craig Claiborne was, many would shrug in ignorance. They might offer up a guess like “an old time cook.” The answer might be the same from many of even the most ardent cooking enthusiasts, Southerners included. Craig Claiborne— along with Julia Child, James Beard, and a handful of others—changed how we think about food every day and what most people know about Southern cooking in general.
Claiborne’s cookbooks and his writing as the food editor of The New York Times stand among some of the greatest and most influential of all-time, certainly of the modern era. Along with Julia’s French Cuisine and Beard’s Four Seasons, Claiborne’s most influential work, The New York Times International Cookbook, is at the top of the cookbook hierarchy. Their books all changed the way we approached food in restaurants, grocery stores, and in our own homes. They are the books that influenced the renaissance of classic French cuisine in this country, that made others think about food seasonally, and yet others to think globally. Along the way, in this book and others over the years, Claiborne introduced America to what real food was all about.
In a time when most of it made no sense to many, Claiborne also jumped ahead of us with his wit, insight, intelligence and enthusiasm for nutritional cooking; for lightening dishes of heavy sauces, extra butter, fats and salt. His work, along with others, set the stage for the beginnings of spa and California cuisine, most famously brought to prominence by Alice Waters and the talented chefs influenced by her.
Likewise, Claiborne almost single-handedly raised the profile of Southern cuisine and the Southern culinary tradition throughout America and gave rise to its then-young star, Paul Prudhomme through his weekly pages in The New York Times. Without Craig making a star of Paul, there would be no Emeril or those who have followed him to success and fame. Without Claiborne, his column, and the most heartfelt and honest cookbook he ever wrote; Southern Cooking, certainly much would be lost from the recorded measure of the cuisine of the South and from the world of cooking for all of us to enjoy today.
Claiborne was a Southerner by birth—from Sunflower, Mississippi, and trailed at the side of his gentile mother in preference to his relationship with his sexually-abusive father. After serving in the military, Claiborne trained in Europe in the classics of cuisine and came to find his voice as a writer, quickly entering the heady, ego-driven food scene in New York. He made friends, like Pierre Franey (whom Claiborne collaborated with on many works), who lasted the rest of his life. He wrote of food in a thinking-man’s style, a style carried on today by the likes of Jeffrey Steingarten and others, and wrote or edited the cookbooks that inspired so many throughout the seventies and eighties, even up to today, to try new foods, to really enjoy making enchiladas, lo-mein, or bolognese.
Claiborne wrote the masterpiece of Southern cookbooks in 1987 with the release of the original Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking. Its popularity was not aided by a “reservation-less” traveling-circus food show or a line of cookware on QVC. Its success was based on its ability to tell, in Craig’s own style and words, of the importance of Southern cooking to us as a nation and among us as a culture in the South. His words led us to the recipes that make up the cordialness of a front-porch, each to be savored with visitors. They made approachable to all the brash and bawdy styles of Creole and Cajun. Claiborne scooped up the best of everything there is to know about Southern cooking and made them his own—and our own, so they would not be lost as a crucial elements in the tradition and history of the Southern states. His writing reflects both the gentle and the hard-scrabble edges of the cuisine of the South in an inspiring manner that not only encourages us all to make these dishes again and again, but to think about these dishes and what they are capable of drawing from each of our memories and shared experiences.
To many who have been influenced by Claiborne’s work over the years, he is as much an historian as a cookbook author or food writer. But he is a unique historian, one who has given us books we can work from, that we can use to replicate the things from our past with, things that we can carry on and pass along to those who will share a table with us. Things that we can share with pride and appreciation for everything Southern cooking brings to us.
I am proud to say that over the years I have owned, read from cover to cover, smudged, spilled things on, bent the corners of, and otherwise seemingly abused many copies of both Claiborne’s International Cooking and Southern Cooking. International Cooking was the first cookbook I ever received as a gift as a teen from someone who heard “I was interested in cooking.” Each copy I’ve had was given to a friend or to a new cook that I thought had promise. It was always with the notion that another copy would somehow make its way into my midst. Both have heavily influenced my cooking, my menus and what I think I know about food.
The recent re-issue of Southern Cooking by the University of Georgia Press, with a new forward by John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Mississippi, brings Claiborne’s masterpiece back for all of us to enjoy. It should be slightly smudged with bacon-drippings on the edges and a bit of cornmeal between a few pages after a few days of use to truly feel at home and should be kept at its rightful place near our sides as we continue to share what makes Southern cooking so special. I won’t leave this copy behind—it is an important reminder of the beauty and richness of Southern cooking.