On Aug. 1, 1965, Craig Claiborne held a picnic on Gardiner’s Island that has come to be known as “the grandest picnic of all time.” He invited a pantheon of French chefs to prepare the meal — Pierre Franey, his friend and collaborator, who was then executive chef at Le Pavillon, Roger Fessaguet from La Caravelle, Jean Vergnes from the Colony, Rene Verdon, then chef at the White House, and Jacques Pepin, who had been personal chef for Charles de Gaulle before coming to New York to work for Franey at Le Pavillon.
For those unlucky enough to have missed that event, it will be recreated in photographs and text as part of “Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey: Cookbook Revolutionaries in East Hampton,” an exhibition that will be held at the East Hampton Historical Society from May 31 through July 13.
Franey’s children launched a website, pierrefraney.com, with photographs, recipes, and other material on their father, and Franey’s daughter Diane, who lives in the family house on Gerard Drive in Springs, brought a collection of photographs to Richard Barons, director of the society, and Isabel Carmichael, assistant director. “We expected snapshots,” Mr. Barons said as he showed a visitor enlargements of a treasure trove of images, including Robert David Lion Gardiner ferrying the chefs to the island, the chefs cleaning mussels and dancing on the beach, and many more.
There are, as well, photographs taken in Claiborne’s kitchen, where he sits at a typewriter while Franey cooks. Among the luminaries who appear in other photos, aside from noted chefs, are Lauren Bacall, Warner LeRoy, Burgess Meredith, Danny Kaye, and Alfonso Ossorio. “Isabel has done a lot of research on the photographs with the Franey family,” Mr. Barons said. “We’re probably just scratching the surface here.”
Mr. Barons and Ms. Carmichael are convinced there is a great deal of memorabilia waiting to be discovered, and they hope people who knew Franey and Claiborne will come forward to share it. “We don’t want to do the show and have people come and tell us, ‘If only we knew, we would have given you . . .’ This is a community exhibit, and we need the community. It really is living history, because it wasn’t that long ago.”
Among the other material obtained thus far are original menus, an Al Hirschfeld caricature of the two men, and a large color photograph of the picnic, which was part of Life magazine’s coverage of the event. The museum has plans to interview people on the South Fork who knew the men and to have tapes of the recollections available for listening. “We’ll also ask the great chefs and cookbook authors out here to pick favorite recipes from the vast published collection,” Mr. Barons said.
Last summer, the museum had plans to present an exhibition on the life and times of Claiborne that originated in Jackson, Miss., but when that failed to materialize, “we began to realize an exhibit just on Craig Claiborne was ridiculous. It had to be Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. The fresh food movement started with them. They went to the farm stands, the fish markets, places like Round Swamp Farm and Bert Greene’s Store in Amagansett.”
In his book “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen,” Mr. Pepin recalls an example of Franey’s insistence on freshness that also reveals his resourcefulness. For the Gardiner’s Island picnic, Franey asked Mr. Pepin to help him catch the 60 lobsters needed for the main course, and a television crew filmed them hauling up the lobster traps. “Pierre understood enough about the habits of Long Island’s lobsters to have taken the precaution of buying a couple of bushels of them the previous evening at Gosman’s in Montauk. In the semi-darkness we loaded the store-bought crustaceans aboard Pierre’s boat, used them to supplement the grand total of five lobsters that had wandered into his traps on their own, and then lowered gear and captives back to the ocean floor.”
There was one flaw in their plan: “All of a sudden, Pierre stopped laughing. His eyes got larger, and he gestured with his chin to a store-bought lobster. I squinted and realized that we’d forgotten to take the rubber bands off their claws.”
Mr. Barons and Ms. Carmichael suspect there are many more stories about the two men who were such an integral part of the East Hampton community, and look forward to hearing and recording them.