The life-story of the Great Cham of American gastronomy, a gent of a certain wit and sang-froid, might well have deserved the attention of more than food groupies--had it been set down in other than inchoate fits and starts. What does emerge of Claiborne's earlier self is illuminating and often touching: a Mississippi childhood blessed with the marvelous cooking, and cursed with the saccharine smotherings, of ""Miss Kathleen,"" his dreadfully possessive mother; an adolescence blighted by the schoolroom stigma of ""sissy,"" punctuated by a few still-treasured friendships, and lastingly warped by a truly bizarre erotic relationship with his kindly but disturbed father; a couple of horizon-widening if inept sojourns in the Navy; a few lean seasons on the fringes of the food scene as magazine dogsbody and PR flack. Up to the point of Claiborne's arrival at the New York Times in 1957, there does emerge an intermittently moving sense of the confused and struggling person behind these experiences. But with the advent of fame and good fortune, the book crumbles into a disjointed scrapbook of great chefs met and luxurious meals encountered or prepared. Much of the light that Claiborne succeeds in shedding on his rather odd journalistic persona is inadvertent. It is plain that Miss Kathleen's son was doomed for better or worse to inherit her finicky gentility, obsession with rank, and innocent pride in small scraps of learning. He is candid about his capacity for selective amnesia vis-Ã -vis painful events, perhaps the reason that the deaths of his parents are left a complete blank in the story. More disturbing is a tendency to settle old scores in print. ""I could never have divined that the day would come when I would give that ill-mannered poseur his due,"" writes Claiborne of a former employer (Claude Philippe of the Waldorf-Astoria) whom he subsequently had an opportunity to deride in the Times. But then Claiborne has specifically told us that he never cheats except as regards ""those who would betray my trust and friendship."" This disconcerting and far from joyous memoir concludes with a list of recommended cookbooks (in which excellent works mingle with efforts of more cosmetic than culinary value) and a selection of a hundred recipes that have appeared during Claiborne's years at the Times. An odd package altogether--but bound to have some notoriety.