By Kim Choe
“I haven’t been hungry in 60 years!”
Mimi Sheraton was born to be a food critic. She grew up in a food-loving family, and says of her parents: “They were all critics, all the time.”
Her mother in particular had very strong opinions about what constituted a good meal: “My brother and I would say, ‘I don’t like this,’ and my mother would say, ‘Well that’s the way I’m always going to make it’.”
The ability to be discerning about food rubbed off on Mimi, who has now been a stalwart of the American food writing scene for more than six decades. Her first full-time job in the industry was as food editor of Seventeen magazine, and in 1975 she became the New York Times’ restaurant critic.
During her eight years in that role she developed a reputation for being tough but fair, and thorough to the point of obsessiveness. Research for an article on deli sandwiches saw her sitting in a car surrounded by 104 of them. Then there was the time she famously spent 11 months tasting all 1,196 items in the food section of New York department store Bloomingdale’s for a 1972 piece in New York Magazine.
Mimi spoke with The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman at the recent Food Book Fair in Brooklyn, and said that despite her parents being outspoken amateur critics, they weren’t exactly thrilled when their daughter decided to make it her profession.
“My mother didn’t like what I did because she thought it was mean to the restaurants. ‘What is it your business?’ she said. My father was afraid someone would kill me.”
Mimi jokes that she had some reservations herself, and frequently dined out disguised in a wig and glasses to avoid being recognised.
“I’ve always been afraid that if I went to a place and gave it a bad review and then went back, they would spit in my food. I wouldn’t be able to tell; my palate isn’t that discerning!”
I asked Mimi how becoming a food critic changed her approach to home cooking. The answer? Dramatically.
“I never ate at home. In 1983 we had dinner home only five times!”
That year was Mimi’s last at the Times, and when she did return to her kitchen, she found her cooking had become more adventurous, utilising unusual ingredients and hard-to-find spices.
However, she’s unsure whether her newfound ambition was a direct result of her work as a critic, or simply a latent expression of the curiosity that led her to the job in the first place.
Mimi will be 90 years old soon. Her decades of dogged commitment to trying as many of the world’s foods as possible have culminated in the ultimate foodie reference book: 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List. Every single item – from Belgian Callebaut chocolate to East African Zanzibar duck – comes personally recommended by Mimi.
It’s no wonder she hasn’t been hungry for 60 years. But for all the delicacies she has tasted during that time, it will always be her mother’s Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jewish recipes for chicken soup or chopped liver that top her list for their evocative simplicity.
“It’s not only the expensive and exotic things that are delicious and have memories,” she smiles.
Mimi’s conversation with Dan Pashman at Food Book Fair 2015 will feature on an episode of The Sporkful in May or June 2015. Follow Dan on Twitter to find out when it drops – it’s going to be a very entertaining listen! Dan’s book ‘Eat More Better: How to Make Every Bite More Delicious’ is perfect for the obsessive eater – also available through Amazon and Book Depository.