Eating Mimi Sheraton's Words
Posted 27 September 2004 - 06:39 AM
As a food critic, Mimi Sheraton was know for uncompromising standards, boundless dedication, and controversial reviews. When accused of having reviewed a restaurant too soon after its opening, her reply was that those were not the concerns of a public paying top dollar. During her tenure as the New York Times food critic, she discovered Rao’s, then a little known place in Spanish Harlem; demoted Le Cirque to one star (“the real travesties were the service…”); and thought Regines, a former celebrity hangout, was “poor” and Alfredo’s, frequented by Times editors, “fair.” Her reviews have resulted in hate mail from readers, advertising cancellations, and lawsuits. One television show taping even ended in a brawl with Paul Bocuse, about which Sheraton’s comment was “My only regret was that the tussle did not happen while we were on camera.”
In her new book, Eating My Words, Sheraton leaves little doubt that her assessments were always well founded and fair. It is a glimpse of a gutsy, spirited journalist and food critic, whose passion for food and genuine concern for public interests led to some of the best and most interesting food writing in recent times. The book also answeres the 20 most frequently asked questions that Sheraton received as a food critic, including: What is her favorite restaurant? What’s it like to be at the Times? Why did she leave? And, has she ever been pressured to give a favorable review from advertisers?
Those who have encountered Sheraton's reviews know that her analysis of food and connoisseurship bordered on scientific. In Eating My Words, she talks about the “constant and overwhelming pressure to be absolutely sure of every rating, even if it took eight or ten visits to a particular restaurant.” To keep her objectivity, Sheraton went to great length to avoid socializing with restaurateurs and painstakingly protected her identity through a collection of wigs and disguises. She writes that, “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; for all practical purposes, they might as well be in different restaurants.” It is these “unknown customers” that Sheraton’s review aims to inform.
As a native Brooklynite, Sheraton grew up in a family of avid cooks and food lovers. Her mother was a great cook and the basis for one of her earliest books, From My Mother’s Kitchen, and her father was in the wholesale fruit and vegetable business. The book recounts her early childhood with a grandmother who gave detailed specs when sending her on the grocery store errands, and her parents who loved to dine out. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Sheraton’s recollection of being taken to the legendary restaurants in her childhood, places like Luchow’s where “the menu was always herring or pea soup, sauerbraten or schnitzel….” It is these dining experiences that later formed the foundation for her food writing.
At its core, Eating My Words is really about Sheraton’s lifelong passion for food, from her husband’s exclamation of “Eating at home is boring,” to her travel stories (where her initial reaction to cilantro was that it tasted like soap, and she described the smell of Durian as a “mixture of rotten cheese and overcooked cauliflower”), to her account of eating with Saul Bellow (when he said, “I see nouvelle, but where’s cuisine?”). The book serves up every morsel with irreverence and a generous sprinkle of dry wit. Where else can a reader learn how to turn a chicken Jewish?
What emerges from the pages of Eating My Words is not just the story of a food critic but of an immensely likable person who happens to be a food critic. It's a great read for foodies, of course, but also for anyone who likes a great book.
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Posted 01 October 2004 - 06:33 AM