If you are what you eat, then Mimi Sheraton is everythingby Wendell Steavenson / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
One bright New York Saturday this April, leftover snow from the last nor’easter melting on the kerbs, I met Mimi Sheraton—doyenne, writer, restaurant critic for the New York Times between 1976 and 1983—for lunch. She was dressed in a chic charcoal sculptured jacket and her face glowed with curiosity. Even at the age of 92, her mind was as quick and iridescent as a hummingbird. She can remember every meal she has eaten since 1945.
Sheraton grew up in Brooklyn in a middle-class Jewish family. “Food was always important in the family. My father was in the fruit and vegetable business. My mother tended to evaluate people on their ability to cook. Especially on their ability to cook chicken soup. She would say of a woman: ‘if they couldn’t cook a decent chicken soup they were not fit to marry one of my uncles.’” The family ate out often. “In those days it was a combination of Fannie Farmer American and Eastern European Jewish. There was Lundy’s, a seafood place on the pier at Sheepshead Bay. I always had the ‘shore dinner’ which was clam chowder, then lobster and corn, and huckleberry pie.
“In Manhattan there was Fan and Bills; their speciality was planked steak. I can see it now, a thick oval plank in the centre of which was a huge steak bordered with all kinds of vegetables: cauliflower, carrots, string beans and then pommes de terre duchesse where they piped mashed potato into swirls and then browned them under a salamander oven. It was a very fashionable dish at the time.” Sheraton read Gourmet magazine from its first issue, she devoured MFK Fisher and other food writers of the time. “They changed the way I looked at food. It seemed it could be romantic, not spiritual exactly, but part of a larger conversation. I think without knowing it I was born to be a food critic.”
When Sheraton moved to Manhattan in 1945 to go to NYU the dominant restaurant scene was French. “In those days no one had heard of gazpacho; pizza was only in Italian neighbourhoods.” She worked as an advertising copywriter and saved up her money to go to restaurants. She reeled off a string of names that once ran along 9th Avenue in the theatre district: Paris-Brest, Brittany, Brittany du Soir, La Mer, Champlain; Cafe Chambord, Voisin. “Edith Piaf would be playing. Greenwich village was the closest we could get to Paris. We all wanted to be French.”
She has written close to 20 books, from a German cookbook to a memoir to her most recent, 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die (2015). Her career has mapped the evolution of food as social barometer. At some point in the 1960s “eating became chic.” Then it evolved à la mode; trends revolved. When she started at the Times in the mid-70s, the big thing was cooking at home—there was a mania for authenticity. “It was kind of snotty, ‘Oh, you didn’t make that yourself?’” But by the early 1980s “kitchens were looking like deserted mining towns in Colorado with tumbleweed blowing through them. Everyone was eating out.”
Sheraton’s knowledge is encyclopaedic (at one point I mentioned Georgian food and she told me about the khinkali and khachapuri she had in Georgian restaurants in Moscow 40 years ago) and her research is exhaustive. She once ate every item in Bloomingdale’s food hall, all 1,196 of them, for a magazine story. Over a two-year period in the 1970s, she visited every Michelin-starred restaurant in France. When she was reviewing restaurants she often returned up to six times, always incognito; she was famous for her disguises. She complained that the famous La Pyramide no longer deserved its three stars after its legendary chef Fernand Pointe died. (A Michelin inspector told her they continued to award them for sentimental reasons.) She upbraided Paul Bocuse, the giant toque among French chefs, telling him that he should attend to his restaurant more often because she had visited it three times and he had not been in the kitchen once.
She watched nouvelle cuisine elevate the chef over the restauranteur, a free rein that produced, in turn, the tasting menu, which she described as a kind of tyranny, with no choice for the diner; “intimidation, that’s the word.” She has more recently witnessed the takeover of the image, as Instagram drives marketing, and of the emphasis of innovation over flavour. “I think at the top level now they are creating dishes for the press to write about.”
Through the 1980s she ate through the tarragon trend and then the rosemary trend. Tuna tartar appeared on New York menus and “never really left.” “But the biggest and surprising trend is the passion for Japanese food,” she told me. “Especially sushi. I would never have thought that you could convince so many Americans to eat raw fish. Now the buzz words on the menu are ‘kale,’ ‘quinoa,’ ‘turmeric’ and ‘fermented.’” Mimi smiled at the silliness of fads. “I’ve written extensively on the miserableness of kale.”
She may be opinionated, but she is not hidebound. We had lunch at one of her favourite neighbourhood spots, The Loring, a bustling modern dining room, with plenty of grains and vegetables on the menu as well as crowd-pleasing wholewheat pizzas and burgers: veggie, turkey or cheese.
I asked her what was her favourite meal ever. She instantly recalled L’Ami Louis in Paris under the chef Antoine Magnin, who had opened the restaurant in 1930, was proud never to have served a Nazi during the occupation, and died in 1986, still cooking. Michelin refused to acknowledge its existence because it had a “Napoleonic era pissoir” as a toilet and Magnin insisted on cooking over fire because he could not fathom a modern gas jet cooker. Once, for a story, Mimi had eaten there every day for a week. “Oh, a copper pan filled with morels and cream, what could anyone invent that could match that?”