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One On 1: Food Critic Mimi Sheraton

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of food critic Mimi Sheraton, a New Yorker whose taste buds have affected dining preferences for some 50 years.

It's usually a simple question; does something taste good or not? For most of us, it's not exactly an analytical experience.

“’This tastes good’ is an analytical experience,” says food critic Mimi Sheraton. “Was it the right bitterness? Was it too sweet? Did it crumble right on the tongue?"

Taste is important, but Sheraton occasionally has to think about things that most of us don't think about.

"I'm a little apprehensive when I go to a restaurant that I had once given a very bad review to and I know they're braced against me,” she says. “I'm always wondering if they're going to poison me."

It’s not an issue at Elephant and Castle, one of Sheraton's local favorites in the Village, where she's lived for more than 50 years. She's spent most of that time writing about restaurants and any topic food related.

"I always thought that the Danes should cut off diplomatic relations with the United States over what we call Danish pastry," she says.

And a day of food shopping in the neighborhood indicates that she's just as passionate as ever.

"My father being in the fruit and produce business and always saying, ÎApples from here are not the same as apples from there’ - once you begin comparing you never stop," Sheraton says.

She's researched food and cultures in cities and villages around the world. A lifetime of anecdotes and opinions are contained in her latest book, a memoir entitled "Eating My Words: An Appetite For Life."

But Sheraton is still known primarily for her nine years in the 1970's and 80's as the food critic for the New York Times, an intensely influential but unusual position that makes you a regular in restaurants across the city, but a stranger in your own kitchen.

"I have this great kitchen which was installed just about six months before I became the critic for the Times. It began to look like a deserted mining town in Colorado,” she says. “I thought tumbleweed is going to come rolling through this kitchen any minute."

Sheraton's method of reviewing? Go to a restaurant at least three times, and sometimes seven or eight; taste different dishes, different courses; and anonymity was absolutely crucial.

To try to remain unknown, Sheraton took to wearing wigs. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

“Then someone says, ÎGood evening Miss Sheraton,’ and you feel so silly,” she says. “Then the dilemma becomes, ÎShould I go into the lady's room and take this off? Or shall I see it through in this thing?’ I felt like Superman ducking into a phone booth and pulling off the clothes and revealing.”

She had rules for her dinner companions. First of all, no calling her Mimi. And she was constantly on the lookout for traitors in her midst.

“Customers who knew me, even friends or in some cases a relative who turned Judas, who in order to ingratiate themselves with the management said, ÎYou know who is sitting over there?’” she says. “And when I found that out, I never spoke to them again because I thought that was beyond the pale."

Sheraton says she learned to critique food at her mother's kitchen table growing up in Brooklyn. Was the meat too tough or too tender? Was there enough seasoning?

She says her folks were proud to see her byline in the New York Times, but they weren't exactly thrilled with their daughter, the food critic.

"My mother sided with the restaurants,” she says. “My mother would say to me, ÎWhat you do is not so nice. A man opens a restaurant and puts a lot of money into it. It's beautiful, [he has a] family to support, and people come and eat at the restaurant until one day, in comes big mouth,’ meaning me."

The job was so all encompassing that in 1983, Sheraton says she ate dinner at home five times.

She decided to leave the Times to travel more, and to eat some home cooked dinners with her husband Richard, right?

“The fourth night in a row that my husband and I ate home, after I had left the Times, we just looked at each other and said, ÎThis is boring,’” she says. “We sort of brushed up our conversation in a restaurant, we talked about more interesting things. We didn't talk about the plumber didn't call today or something like that. All in all, it was a more entertaining experience.”

OK, so eating at Mimi Sheraton's home as part of my research for this profile wasn't exactly heavy lifting. True.

Ironically, Sheraton says she rarely gets to experience being a guest in other people's homes, because they're just too scared to invite her.

“I can't stand watching people cook and not telling them what they're doing wrong,” she says. “I can sit in the living room and hear that the flame on the stove is too high, and I can say, ÎYou better turn that heat down.’”

And she wonders why she’s not getting invited over more?

But Sheraton gets plenty of invitations to speak all over the country at food seminars and conventions.

She's also returned to her alma mater, Midwood High School in Brooklyn, to teach English classes, specifically writing about the cafeteria and its food. Her memories of her high school years are still vivid.

"I think [I] wanted to be famous,” she says. “I definitely have the feeling that [I] wanted the people [I] went to school with to hear about [me] in later life. A little bit of, ÎI'll show them.’”

Sheraton went to NYU, got married, went to work in the magazine world writing about home furnishings, and she traveled.

In the late 50s, Sheraton was planning a trip around the world sponsored by SAS, Scandinavian Airlines, but there was one issue.

“I became pregnant,” she says. “It had become very difficult to become pregnant. I had some miscarriages and I wasn't going to give up anything for this baby, so I said, ÎI can't do the restaurant project,’ and gave it to a friend who did it."

A few years later, SAS offered again, and this time Sheraton said yes.

A young mother traveling around the world alone was almost unheard of in those days.

“It was a dinner party and my husband was there and he said, ÎI think you have to do it.’ But I said, ÎMark is only 14 months - what am I going to do?’ And I had this pang of guilt,” she says. “Everybody felt it would be a huge mistake for me not to do it, and with some pangs of guilt I forced myself. And believe me, it was like being a kid in a candy store."

Through the years, Sheraton has retained a kind of Brooklyn feistiness in her reporting in New York and around the world. She's needed it - one time using a mask on French television.

“When some of the three-star restaurant proved to be not so good and I said so, they went berserk in France,” she says. “Paul Beaucoup said that I obviously had an unsatisfactory sex life."

That feistiness also came into play when Sheraton left the Times after nearly a decade as its restaurant critic.

“I wanted to walk and to call someone and say, "This is Mimi Sheraton,’ and have them take the call without having to say, ÎThis is Mimi Sheraton of the New York Times,’” she says.

Mimi Sheraton's career may not have taken a traditional path, but after some 50 years of tasting, cooking and reviewing, she is still passionate about food, and somewhat reflective on how it all happened.

“I think I was a born rebel, and I think I always liked to agitate and get people's attention," she says. “I always pushed buttons. I test the waters. I tend to provoke people a little bit, and I guess that came through."

- Budd Mishkin

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