In the late 1950s Craig Claiborne, The New York Times restaurant critic and food writer, approached Leo Lindemann, the owner of the famed Lindy’s restaurant and deli in New York, and pleaded for his cheesecake recipe to no avail. In 1977, Claiborne claimed he had since come into possession of this treasure via
Guy Pascal, a distinguished pastry chef who purportedly reverse engineered the recipe by watching a former Lindy’s baker who came to work for him in Las Vegas. Pascal said he did various calculations based on the amount of cream cheese he was purchasing and the number of cakes being produced, and by glancing inconspicuously as the furtive baker went about his business. In six months, claimed Pascal, he had deciphered the secret.
After Claiborne’s article appeared, a flood of letters to the Times disputed Pascal’s claim. Some said the original recipe had been published years before in The New York Herald Tribune. Others wrote the real recipe had been published in Woman’s Day or Family Circle or McCall’s or even the Times itself. One astute writer pointed out that the original recipe had been published in Clementine Paddleford’s seminal book, How America Eats (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960).
In her book, Paddleford, a food editor for This Week Magazine and a food writer for The New York Tribune, wrote, “the late Mr. Lindy…was a lovable, laughable, unpredictable little man. If he liked you he would give you anything except the way of the cheesecake.” Lindy must have really liked Paddleford if her account is to be believed. As Paddleford finished a piece of the famous cheesecake, she asked Lindy, “how about serving up the recipe?” Lindy summoned his pastry chef, Paul Landry. “He couldn’t believe his ears,” wrote Paddleford. “The cheesecake recipe was being handed over by the big boss. I give it to you as Paul Landry gave it to me.”
Paddleford was America’s best known and most influential food writer for over four decades, read by 12 million people a week. So, why would Craig Claiborne, and a famous pastry chef like Guy Pascal, claim to have unlocked the mystery seventeen years later? And why would Lindy, after decades of holding the recipe so close, share it with Paddleford?
Claiborne was probably well aware of Paddleford’s claim and chose to ignore it, for it made his own story all the more sensational. Claiborne began at the Times in 1957, towards the end of Paddleford’s career. But, according to Paddleford’s biographers, Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris writing in Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate (Gotham Books, 2008), there was little love lost between them. Claiborne, they wrote, had a way of covering ground Paddleford had already trod “as if he were the first to discover it.” The competition between them was further fueled by the competition between their two newspapers, with the upstart Times on the rise and the Trib on the decline (it closed in 1966). In his own memoir, A Feast Made for Laughter: A Memoir with Recipes (Henry Holt & Co., 1983), published fifteen years after Paddleford’s death, Claiborne was dismissive of the woman widely considered “the grand dame of food writing.” Paddleford, he wrote “would not have been able to distinguish skillfully scrambled eggs from a third-rate omelet.” Ouch!
The answer to the second question, why Lindy might have obliged Paddleford, is simple. Paddleford was so influential that her mention of a restaurant could, according to Alexander and Harris, “easily double its business.”
Paddleford’s claim to have been given the original by Lindy himself is bolstered by a memo she wrote to Louella Shouer at Ladies’ Home Journal in which she recounts making and remaking the recipe and finally asking “the reluctant chef to come to our kitchen” where he “made the delicacy while our testers looked on at the step by step procedure.”
Lindy’s cheesecake recipe is included in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, adapted from Paddleford’s book. Whether it’s truly Lindy’s original is anybody’s guess, but it’s a winner.