If you are what you eat, then Mimi Sheraton is everythingby Wendell Steavenson / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.”