“The grandest picnic of all time” on Gardiner’s Island with (left to right) Pierre Franey, Jacques Pépin, Roger Fessaguet, Jean Vergnes, and René Verdon, 1965. Photo courtesy East Hampton Historical Society.
By Tessa Raebeck
In the early ’90s, Pierre Franey hit a deer while driving in Springs. Always dedicated to using the freshest ingredients in his cooking, the famous chef tossed the carcass in his trunk and brought it home to make venison. When he opened the trunk when he arrived home on Gerard Drive, however, the deer that was supposed to be dinner jumped out and ran away.
Although it didn’t work out that evening, Mr. Franey and best friend and collaborator Craig Claiborne are widely credited as being the fathers of the fresh food movement.
The duo, who wrote weekly food articles, restaurant reviews, countless recipes and co-authored 10 books over a 20-year collaboration, will be honored by the East Hampton Historical Society at a new exhibition, “Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey: Cookbook Revolutionaries in East Hampton,” which will have an opening reception next Friday, May 30.
Although they came from vastly different backgrounds, Mr. Franey having grown up in Burgundy, France, and Mr. Claiborne in Sunflower, Mississippi, the friends found common ground in their love for cooking, fresh ingredients and the East End. Mr. Claiborne and Mr. Franey both lived in Springs, surrounded by famous friends and creative spirits.
Mr. Claiborne, raised on southern cuisine in the kitchen of his mother’s boarding house, used his G.I. Bill benefits from serving in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War to attend school in Switzerland. In 1957, he started a long-time career as food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times. In addition to vastly broadening the scope of the paper’s dining coverage, his columns and cookbooks introduced ethnic cuisines, such as Asian, Cajun and Mexican food, to a generation of Americans known for their love of frozen TV dinners. His “New York Times Cookbook” became “one of the most bought and sought cookbooks of its generation,” according to society director Richard Barons.
“People are still using the recipes,” he added. “It’s not like some cookbooks that just sort of disappear. The “New York Times Cookbook” is still a viable force in the kitchen.”
Best known for his popular TV cooking shows like “Cuisine Rapide” and his “60 Minute Gourmet” column, also in The New York Times, Mr. Franey first came to the U.S. to cook in the French Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. He stayed stateside, working for various companies, and was hired by the Times in 1975 to be a core figure in its brand new Living section (now the Dining section). His column was a huge success, ultimately appearing in over 360 newspapers worldwide. Mr. Franey authored or co-authored (most often with Mr. Claiborne) 15 cookbooks and a memoir during his lifetime and had several television shows, including “Cooking in France,” which won the James Beard Foundation Award for best cooking show in 1995, shortly before his death.
The pair, who became fast friends, met in the 1950s when Mr. Franey was working at Le Pavillon, “one of the great restaurants in the history of New York” according to Mr. Barons.
“They began to talk and it just sort of developed into this wonderful relationship where they would share ideas, share restaurants, share recipes,” Mr. Barons said.
Together, Mr. Franey and Mr. Claiborne championed fresh ingredients, diverse dishes and, in essence, good, nutritious food.
“The 1940s and ’50s was not an era of particularly creative cooking,” said Mr. Barons. “It didn’t stress fresh things, it was an era that was still captivated by canned goods and, particularly by the 1950s, the whole wonder of frozen vegetables and frozen food… it really was a Wonder Bread world.”
“They were very free form in thinking in their food. They weren’t stodgy in any sense of the word; they kept very up to date, which is probably the reason they did so many cookbooks,” Mr. Barons said, adding that there are some 50 cookbooks between the two of them, including salt-free and low calorie recipe books and those that contain recipes that take less than an hour to prepare.
Pierre Franey and Craig Claiborne cooking in Mr. Claiborne’s kitchen in the Clearwater neighborhood of Springs in the late 1970s. Photo courtesy East Hampton Historical Society.
“We just assume that these things have always been done, but we begin to realize that so much of it was codified during that period,” he added.
They brainstormed recipes at Mr. Claiborne’s house—a gigantic kitchen with bathroom and bedroom attached as an afterthought—and hosted meals in Mr. Franey’s backyard overlooking Gardiner’s Bay.
One of the most famous gatherings prepared by the pair was a picnic on Gardiner’s Island hosted by Mr. Claiborne on August 1, 1965. Often called “the grandest picnic of all time,” the event was held for Robert David Lyon Gardiner and attended by a smattering of celebrity chefs and famous friends.
“These were extraordinary events,” Mr. Barons said, adding that Jean Vergnes, Lauren Bacall and Danny Kaye were some of the guests.
Photos from the picnic, weddings and other events, as well as cookbooks, newsletters, the French copper weathervane that hung in Mr. Franey’s kitchen, the French china Mr. Claiborne served meals on and an early American wooden bowl that Mr. Claiborne gave his friend as a housewarming gift when he moved to East Hampton will be on display at the exhibition, as well as many other artifacts.
“Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey: Cookbook Revolutionaries in East Hampton” will be on exhibit from May 31 through July 13 at Clinton Academy, 151 Main Street in East Hampton. An opening reception will be held Friday, May 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit easthamptonhistory.org or call 324-6850.