Mimi Sheraton: Innovative Restaurant Critic

From a Washington Post obit by Brian Murphy headlined “Mimi Sheraton, influential food writer and reviewer, dies at 97″:

Mimi Sheraton, a grand dame of contemporary foodie culture who brought the influential restaurant review beat at the New York Times into a new era and spent decades writing about culinary worlds from Michelin-starred French hideaways to the simple joys of a perfect chicken soup, died April 6 at a hospital in Manhattan.

It’s hard to find anywhere in the food universe that wasn’t touched by Ms. Sheraton’s pen or panache.

She helped shape modern food writing as a mix of storytelling, history and a worldly palate. Her relentlessly curious tastes were also part of a major shift in American eating, bringing what was once called “ethnic cuisine” into the mainstream, and giving a grounding to the food-as-adventure milieu of such later celebrities as Anthony Bourdain and Samin Nosrat.

Ms. Sheraton’s career spanned more than seven decades — from typewriters to Twitter — and countless food fads, must-try cuisines and restaurants rising and falling. But it was her years at the New York Times from 1976 to 1983 that handed her a powerful stage and the freedom to branch out. She increasingly took reviews into then-unusual corners for Times readers such as yellowtail sashimi and Afghan paneer.

“[The] United States has a constantly changing cuisine, and I’m very happy about that,” she told Edible Manhattan while discussing “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die” (2015), one of more than 10 books she wrote or co-authored. “We don’t want to ever say, ‘This is it.’ That’s not what our country is about.”

Before approaching the Times, she had already developed a voice on the New York food scene. She had drawn considerable attention at New York magazine in 1972 for a yearlong project to try each of the 1,961 items in the Bloomingdale’s Food Shop.

When renowned food editor and reviewer Craig Claiborne left the Times in the early 1970s, Ms. Sheraton applied for the opening, only to be told no women were being considered. (Claiborne’s predecessor as food editor was Jane Nickerson, who from 1942 to 1957 helped bring sober-minded reporting on food and food trends to a national audience.)

“I wrote them a lot of nasty letters,” Ms. Sheraton told an interviewer in 2019 for a Greenwich Village oral history project. She recalled that someone in personnel responded that she “would never be material for the New York Times.”

“Boy, did I shove that at him when they called me,” she said, landing the job in 1976 as the paper’s first full-time restaurant reviewer with Claiborne, who had returned in 1974, as food editor.

Some women elsewhere were making a mark in the food world: Julia Child and Joyce Chen on TV, and Gael Greene as New York magazine’s restaurant critic. Ms. Sheraton now had the most coveted megaphone of all.

“At the time, it wasn’t usual for women to have a voice of authority,” said Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a journalism professor at the University of Central Florida whose books include “The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community.” “But they were allowed to have a voice in food.”

Later, Ms. Sheraton’s blogs, books, tweets and interviews carried an oracle-like resonance decades after she relinquished her gavel as a Times reviewer. She was expert at staying part of the conversation.

“I can make so many people mad in 140 characters,” she told the Sporkful podcast in 2015.

Her writing style was simple and accessible, modeled on her journalistic idol, A.J. Liebling, and its power came from a bred-in-the-bone love of what we eat and how we eat it. She could exalt a good hot dog as much as a sublime black truffle. She explored 600 ways to make chicken soup and picked the best. Pro tip: it begins with a six-pound kosher pullet, a hen less than a year old.

And then there was that laugh. Call it earthy, definitely not low-cal and sometimes salty, sometimes sweet. The laugh bubbled up gloriously, spontaneously — swaying the chunky necklaces she favored — whenever she started telling tales from her culinary sojourns.

She would sigh while describing the morel mushrooms and cream at Chez l’Ami Louis in Paris. A fresh-plucked Italian fig was “sheer ecstasy.”

She challenged readers to experiment at home, such as a 1981 column describing a summer dish of iced Japanese bean curd “livened” with astringent ginger and dried seaweed.

Long before everything was a click away, Ms. Sheraton followed word-of-mouth tips about an amazing noodle nook or a West African joint with a delicious lamb mafé in peanut sauce. (She disliked tripe, maple syrup and ranch dressing, though).

“But there was no snobbery,” said Ruth Reichl, an author of cookbooks and food memoirs and Times restaurant critic from 1993 to 1999. “Yes, she wanted people to explore tastes. She was not preaching to them. An important difference.”

At times, Ms. Sheraton could seem out of step with the later generation of food media stars who leaned more aggressively into issues such as sustainability, farmworker conditions and environmental justice. She also flashed a curmudgeonly streak at times, telling one interviewer that food trucks made no sense to her “Where the hell do you eat?” Her native Brooklyn as a foodie paradise? No place there, she said, is worth the schlep from the West Village, where she had lived since the 1940s.

Food and family

Miriam Helene Solomon was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 10, 1926. Her father was in wholesale fruits and vegetables. Her mother was an “ambitious cook” with recipes from her family’s Ashkenazi roots, but did not stick to a kosher kitchen and branched out.

She headed over the Brooklyn Bridge to New York University, studying journalism and marketing. At the end of her sophomore year in 1945, she married William Schlifman, just back from the military, and she graduated two years later. Apparently because of antisemitism, they changed their last names to Sheraton, and she kept the Sheraton byline after divorcing in 1954 and marrying tableware importer Richard Falcone the next year.

As a young journalist, she wrote and edited stories about interior design and furnishings, first with Seventeen and then House Beautiful magazines. In 1962 — as a longtime fan of Gourmet magazine — she churned out “Seducer’s Cookbook,” a slightly tongue-in-cheek book on the mating game through food. (You get your man in the mood, she advised women readers, with orange slices soaked in white crème de menthe for dessert.)

Food-related assignments flowed.

After leaving the Times, Ms. Sheraton became a kind of food evangelist and archaeologist — somewhere between gushy Guy Fieri and the rakish Bourdain — with books and columns in the Daily Beast and an “Ask Mimi” podcast. She was not shy about talking about to battles to keep off weight.

In “The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World” (2000) she traveled through Eastern Europe and her own Jewish roots for the origins of the humble bialy. She teamed with photographer Nelli Sheffer for the book “Food Markets of the World” in 1997.

At 90 in 2016, she joked to Charlie Rose on his PBS show about her wide-open tastes and longevity. “I eat plenty of salt because it’s a preservative,” she said. “Plenty of fat to keep my joints; plenty of glutton to keep stuck together, and caffeine for the brain.”

In an interview, writer Calvin Trillin recalled visiting the New Orleans Jazz Festival with Ms. Sheraton in the 1970s. They were given early access to the 30 or so food stalls, getting heaping portions at every stop. Trillin was drifting into a stupor by noon, but Ms. Sheraton was planning not to miss a bite.

“She said, ‘Now let’s get over to booth 16 again,’ ” Trillin recalled. “The étouffée wasn’t ready when we were first there, and she had to get back to try it.”

Brian Murphy joined The Washington Post after more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East. Murphy has reported from more than 50 countries and has written four books

Also see the New York Times obit by Robert D. McFadden headlined “Mimi Sheraton, Innovative Food Critic at The New York Times, Dies at 97.” The opening grafs:

Mimi Sheraton, the food writer and restaurant critic who chronicled culinary scenes in New York and around the world with a discriminating palate and deft prose that captured the nuances of haute cuisine and plumbed the mysteries of chicken soup, died on Thursday in Manhattan.

In a six-decade career, Ms. Sheraton was The New York Times’s food and restaurant critic from 1976 to 1983; worked for Vanity Fair, Time, New York, Condé Nast Traveler and other magazines; and wrote 16 books, including restaurant guides, cookbooks, memoirs and a farewell of sorts, “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die” (2015). She calculated in 2013 that she had eaten 21,170 restaurant meals professionally in 49 countries.

An adventurer with a passion for offbeat experiences, an eclectic taste for foods and the independence to defy pressures from restaurateurs and advertisers, Ms. Sheraton was the first female food critic for The Times. She pioneered reviewing-in-disguise, dining in wigs and tinted glasses, and using aliases for reservations, mostly in high-end places where people knew her from repeat visits and lavished their attentions on her.

“The longer I reviewed restaurants, the more I became convinced that the unknown customer has a completely different experience from either a valued patron or a recognized food critic,” she wrote in her memoir, “Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life” (2004). “For all practical purposes, they might as well be in different restaurants.”

Colleagues and other restaurant critics described her reviews as tough but fair and scrupulously researched. The Times required three visits to a restaurant before publishing a review; she dined six to eight times before passing judgment. For an article on deli sandwiches, she collected 104 corned beef and pastrami samples in one day to evaluate the meat and sandwich-building techniques.

Ms. Sheraton wrote a review for New York magazine in 1972 after tasting all 1,196 items in the Bloomingdale’s food department. The task took 11 months. “I brewed 97 pots of tea and turned over one bathtub just to the jars of jellies and jams,” she recalled.

Another of her reviews, based on blind tastings by several Times staff members, favored private-label liquors over popular brand names of Scotch, bourbon, rye, vodka and gin. The review ran weeks before Christmas, the busy liquor-selling season.

“I heard that two million dollars’ worth of advertising had been canceled,” Ms. Sheraton recalled in her memoir. She approached the executive editor. “I asked Abe Rosenthal if that was true. He said, ‘That’s none of your business. It was a great story.’”

Negative reviews by Ms. Sheraton generated some lawsuits, and she occasionally received angry letters from restaurateurs and diners. But they were far outnumbered by missives from those who liked her straightforward judgments. Some said her vivid culinary descriptions evoked childhood memories of kitchens and holiday dinner tables, or of travels to exotic lands.

For Times readers on Nov. 15, 1981, Ms. Sheraton caught the moods of open markets from Africa to Asia: “In Calcutta, graceful women in silken saris are colorful competition for the pyramided cones of earth-toned spices they sell in the markets. The Indian women provide a sharp contrast to the workmen in the Tsukiji wholesale fish market in Tokyo, who can be seen taking naps on the concrete platforms at 2 or 3 in the morning, curled up against giant sharks that look no less menacing for being dead. Vendors in the souks of Marrakesh, selling lemons, mint, coriander, grilled meat and nougat candy, look as if they had stepped out of biblical times.”

Ms. Sheraton often ate four meals a day, at venues ranging from pushcarts to palatial restaurants. But she usually chose little-known places with good food and dined with a few quickly recruited colleagues or friends. She paid for meals in cash. She never took notes in a restaurant but had a remarkable memory for flavors, aromas, service and ambience. After years of using a typewriter, she resisted computers for a time, dictating reviews by phone, as her civilized world turned digital.

Ms. Sheraton also reviewed foods served in schools, hospitals and prisons, and she consulted with those institutions to improve their menus. Her frequent trips abroad prompted her to write books and articles on the cuisines of Germany, France, Italy, China, Russia and Vietnam, and on markets and specialty foods.

For her book “The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World” (2000), she scoured Europe, Israel and Argentina for authentic versions of the Jewish round breads sprinkled with onions and spices. She found they were no longer made in Bialystok, Poland, where the Nazis had burned to death 2,000 Jews in a synagogue in 1941. But among the diaspora of bakers, she found the best bialys on the Lower East Side of Manhattan….

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