1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die
A Food Lover's Life List
By Mimi Sheraton
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Mimi Sheraton: I'm Mimi Sheraton, and my latest book is 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.
Suzy Chase: You are one of the world's foremost experts on food, and among many other things, the first female restaurant critic at the New York Times. 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die includes 70 world cuisines, and took you 10 years to compile. Talk a little bit about the process.
Mimi Sheraton: Well, the process turned out to be far more difficult than I imagined, which is par for the course, I think. I knew about the book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and I loved it. So, I contacted Workman, the publisher of that book, and suggested this one, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, and they loved it, and we began. The delivery date and the contract was two years, and it took 10, because while I had no problem deciding what to put in, it was ... the writing was part of the problem, but also, finding sources for everything in the book. One way or another, there is a source for every item in the book, and that took a lot of time.
And as the time went on, earlier sources died out, and we had to get new ones. Also, I had to substitute some things just for the sake of balance. I mean, I probably could have done 1,000 Foods to Eat in France, or Italy, or the United States, but I wanted the countries in Africa. They had such great specialties and products, and the Middle East and South America. So, it is totally worldwide. There was that constant balancing and trying to write without being too repetitious and so on. So, that's how something takes 10 years.
Suzy Chase: Every single item is sourced. How do you keep the sources current? Are you constantly updating them?
Mimi Sheraton: Well, as we get ready for a new printing, which has happened already once, anything I ... I don't go through the whole book, but anything I've heard of that closed or changed and so on, I find a new source for.
Suzy Chase: Does every entry have a special meaning to you?
Mimi Sheraton: Absolutely. Absolutely. Highly, highly, personal. Highly opinionated choices, sometimes sounding a bit bizarre, a bit exotic. There are even some things I have in there that I consider as being terrible, but much loved wherever they were eaten. And part of the purpose of the book is to develop an understanding in other people's tastes and cuisines and way of life. I think that should be a rewarding part of reading the book because most of all, as a writer, I hope it's a good read, and that there is a lot of serendipitous information that people will enjoy knowing.
I also hope that it serves as a guide for travelers because it is divided by countries. And if one is going to a country, it's a good idea to check this book to see ... There are restaurant names in it. There are dishes in it. There are ingredients in it that, for the most part, can only be had in the particular place known for them. So, I do think it's a quasi-food and travel book.
Suzy Chase: The first two foods you jotted down for this book were a frozen Milky Way bar and caviar. That's quite a range.
Mimi Sheraton: Well, that's the range in the book. Not everything wonderful is expensive or rare, so I think that level of appreciation is good. But I also think with Valentine's Day is on everybody's mind, it would be fun for a couple to go through this book together and check off who has had what, and try to fill in the blanks. I think it would be a very nice joint effort for people because it's important that people who are going to get along eat well together.
Suzy Chase: You never want to fight over a restaurant.
Mimi Sheraton: No, and you never want to be, if you're a food lover, I don't really think you want to be tied up for life with someone who really doesn't care about it.
Suzy Chase: I've heard you say that this book is an overall view of what the world eats. What's one dish that you find exciting right now?
Mimi Sheraton: Well, one dish that's sweeping around that I love is shakshouka, which is a North African Israeli dish of eggs baked in a very pungent tomato sauce. We have several places in New York doing it, and I'm beginning to see rifts on it all over the place. I'm always excited about linguine with white clam sauce, and it's getting harder and harder to find in its original, classic simplicity. So, I'm always on the search for the old tastes, and I suppose caviar's still exciting to me.
I like so many things. It's difficult to pick one, but I would say not only shakshouka, but the cuisine developed around it, which is Jewish North African Israeli. That is more or less a compliment to the Mediterranean cuisine we have known from Spain and Italy and Greece. The other side of the Mediterranean has many similar dishes, but the spicing is a little richer, a little more complex. I describe it by oversimplification, saying the eastern part of the Mediterranean food is seasoned with spices, whereas the western side is more likely to be fresh herbs. That is an oversimplification, but it does define, I think, a desire for a heftier taste experience. But the ingredients are almost identical. Eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, all of those lovely, good things. And shakshouka appears, by the way, in many forms on the western side, most especially in Spain where they do the eggs and tomato sauce as well.
Suzy Chase: It's so good.
Mimi Sheraton: Yep. With toasted pita.
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Mimi Sheraton: There's a wonderful place in the Village for it. Mémé. I don't know if you've been there.
Suzy Chase: On Hudson. Uh-huh (affirmative).
Mimi Sheraton: Yeah, and the do, I think, the best shakshouka in the city, and also wonderful meze. Their tabbouleh and baba ghanoush and those things are really delicious, as is the chicken tagine, which is something I'm inclined to get there in the evening when they do not do shakshouka.
Suzy Chase: Have you started to like kale?
Mimi Sheraton: Not really, unless it's cooked the very old way as I described in that article I wrote for the Daily Beast, for which I am a columnist, by the way. The old way, kale is cooked very, very soft, and usually with some kind of grease or fat. In Italy, it would be olive oil and garlic. In the Deep South of this country, it would be ham hocks or pork belly. In China, it would be a different kind of oil and garlic.
And of course, the one really good kale dish is the Portuguese soup Caldo Verde, which is kale and potatoes and sausages and onion, cooked down to the most silky softness imaginable with very rich flavor. I think what's happening with kale now is abominations. Raw, hard, bitter, dry. I don't think that the current inventions take into account the inherent qualities of kale itself. So, I think you have less-
Suzy Chase: I know. That's why I'm not going to eat any kale in 2017. It was so big last year. I'm not eating it this year. It's last year.
Mimi Sheraton: Yeah, well, it'll be replaced soon by some other vegetable they're going to ruin, but ...
Suzy Chase: So, talk a little bit about your love of research, staring with the Four Seasons.
Mimi Sheraton: Well, for the Four Seasons, of course, I was a consultant to the original team on menu and product research. That was what I did when they were creating that restaurant. In the process of my working with them, and seeing how a restaurant is put together, I began to know how to take it apart as a critic. All the elements that go into it, all of the planning, all of the evaluating, every ingredient, every step is a choice. And how much attention is paid to choice, and what is the focus of that attention, whether it's only profit, whether it's also diner comfort, these are all of the elements that have to work against each other for a result.
Suzy Chase: As the restaurant critic for the New York Times, how did you avoid being recognized?
Mimi Sheraton: Well, I'm sure after several years, I was. But before when I started, I was not really known to many restaurants, maybe a few in the Village. By the way, I've lived in the Village for 72 years, so [inaudible 00:10:24] actually a few people in the Village know who I am. I had three wigs, and I had many pairs of eyeglasses. I don't wear eyeglasses, but they had fake glass, not real lenses. And the fact that no one expected to see glasses on my face, and I had three distinctly different wigs, worked for a very, very long time, certainly for, I would say, four of the eight years I did it.
And then it kept on working in many less sophisticated restaurants that were not attuned to the idea of a critic coming in. I think one of my great triumphs as a critic, and one of which I have just written about for the Daily Beast, was Rao's, where they didn't know anything about critics. Frank Pellegrino, who unfortunately died last week, spoke at a birthday party for me, and he said, "We didn't know what a restaurant review was. We only read the New York Daily News, and we had no idea what hit us when the review came out."
They had no idea who I was, and I did the usual three visits. Later on, on very sophisticated places, especially if they had PR people, or a captain who had known me in one restaurant recognized me when he moved to another. They also began to recognize my husband, who would not wear disguises. Friends never told, and also because the name Mimi is not too usual and sort of resonates when it's said, no one was allowed to call me Mimi at the table. I had names like Claire and Louise. There were a few Mimi-sayers who could not stop saying Mimi, and they were never asked out again to dine with us.
So, that was ... and I never went any place where I expected to see a restaurateur, a chef, or anyone who did PR for them. If I were invited to a private party, I would always ask if one of those would be there. And I wouldn't go, including a great Christmas party given by a close friend of mine on the paper who was friendly with the owners of the Russian Tea Room and Elaine's, and press agents because food was not her daily work. It was fine for her, but I would never go to the parties, partly because I didn't want them to know what I looked like, but also I felt it would be awkward being friendly and sociable to someone whom you might have to kill in a review.
Suzy Chase: I've noticed that Pete Wells, Adam Platt, and Jonathan Gold have totally given up on the anonymity.
Mimi Sheraton: I think it's too bad because anyone who says it doesn't make a difference does know what he or she is talking about. But I think in this age of Instagram and selfies and the internet, I think it's very, very difficult to maintain anonymity. But no one can tell me that it doesn't make a difference, and I once wrote an article about that for Vanity Fair on what a restaurant can do when a critic appears unexpectedly. And there was so much they could do to the food [inaudible 00:14:06] that I knew.
After the article appeared, a very good restaurateur no longer alive in New York, Adi Giovanetti, who had a restaurant called Il Nido, called me and at the paper and said, "Signora, we can do a lot more than that. If you order an appetizer, we have plenty of time to fix the main course." And he went on and on. So, anyone who tells me it doesn't make a difference I have often said is a fool or a liar. A fool, because he or she doesn't know what can be done with food. A liar, because that's the only way they can do it and they have to. But I do believe Jonathan and Pete and anyone else working now can do it no other way. It's a loss. It's a great loss in a review.
Suzy Chase: Alex Stupak of Empellón here on West 10th and West 4th tweeted out this statement. Quote, "People ask why and how a restaurant closed. If you were really a supporter and there were enough of you, it wouldn't have." End quote. Now, I personally feel like restaurants close in our neighborhood and in New York City due to crazy rent hikes. What do you think?
Mimi Sheraton: I think you're right. Rent hikes, and now the new minimum wage law is going to be very hurtful for them, although that's too bad because people should work for decent wages. And the rising costs of food, and many places are being closed. As for what Stupak said, I feel that he is right, and yet, how often does one have to go to one restaurant to save it? One of my great favorites is closing at the end of spring, which is Annisa. Anita Lo's [crosstalk 00:16:10]
Suzy Chase: Oh, no.
Mimi Sheraton: Yes, and when I moan about it and I'm sad about it, and I say to myself, "Where did you go last?" And I can't even remember when I went there last. The problem is, especially for me and maybe other writers, you want to see new places. There are so many new places, and there's just so much money you're going to spend. So, you tend to go to a lot of new places and go back, and then you always mean, in fact, I'm going to Annisa this coming Sunday.
Even the Carnegie Deli. It was one of my great, great favorites. It's closed, and then I said to myself, "You know, I haven't been there for two years." How often would I have to go to save the Carnegie Deli? I mean, it's a funny notion. What you keep needing is new people to come, and geography has an influence, the location.
A funny thing about Annisa and a few other places, when you think of going out for dinner and you're trying to pick, you sort of think in an area. Although it didn't hurt her for many years, that particular street in Greenwich Village is not one that pops into my memory. That's a funny thing to say, but it's true. There's another street in New York. 59th, between 5th and Madison, that has had good restaurants come and go, and somehow, that street never pops up in my mind when I think of where to go, so ...
But what a restaurant has to do is keep making news so that people like me and others still, they have to keep going back. I guess it's hard to keep making news, not only because that it entails hiring a public relations person, that's very, very expensive. You would have to sell a lot of dinners just to break even on that. I did a piece for the Daily Beast on my favorite new New York restaurants in 2016. One of them was Fowler & Wells, which is Tom Colicchio's new restaurant downtown. He said to me, "Soon, it will be impossible for new restaurants in New York to open on the street level. They may have to go to the second or third floor where the rents will be much cheaper."
Suzy Chase: Wow, that's a shame.
Mimi Sheraton: And he closed Colicchio & Sons, but he opened up downtown because it's in a hotel, and he doesn't have a rent problem if he's in a hotel. So, there's a changing dynamic going on. Less formal restaurants that do away with certain costs, a format pioneered by David Chang. But how many people want to eat on stools and eat without reservations? And so on. They'd be the younger people.
So, we have to see how it plays out, but still, restaurants are opening right and left. I mean, if you haven't been to Loring Place on 8th Street between 5th and 6th, you're missing a great new restaurant. A very big space by Dan Kluger, who was so excellent at ABC Kitchen and is already excellent in his new place. I mean, I don't remember a year. I've been reviewing restaurants in New York for 60 years exactly, starting with the Village Voice, Q Magazine, and on and on. And I never remember so many new restaurants opening within one year.
I went to 21 for the story I did for the Daily Beast, and I read the picks of other critics, and not only were there many I never got to, but there were many I never even heard of. So, it's been a crazy, crazy year, and it's hard to believe that everyone's cruisin' for a bruisin'. But we have to watch what goes on. I mean, some very expensive white tablecloth restaurants have opened. Augustine and Le Coucou, which is clearly the restaurant of the year, and Le Coq Rico. I mean, all of these are solid, table-and-chair restaurants, big tickets. So, we'll have to see how it plays out. But being obsessive about restaurants, for me, it's a game. It's a challenge. It's something I never get tired of watching.
Suzy Chase: On page 569, you've included one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. I adore-
Mimi Sheraton: Mine too.
Suzy Chase: I adore the architecture and the vibe, and the caviar sandwich. It's an iconic gem. That restaurant is just amazing.
Mimi Sheraton: I've never had it. What, I've never had it. I always eat oyster stew and chowder and fish. What is the caviar sandwich? [crosstalk 00:21:28]
Suzy Chase: You've never had it? It's white-
Mimi Sheraton: No. I think I may as soon as we hang up. I may go over. What is it?
Suzy Chase: It's toasted white bread. It's hard boiled eggs and caviar.
Mimi Sheraton: What kind of caviar? Black? Black, red?
Suzy Chase: Oh, it's black. It's black.
Mimi Sheraton: Black. Do they say what kind it is?
Suzy Chase: No. They just call it the caviar sandwich.
Mimi Sheraton: And what do they charge? Do you know?
Suzy Chase: I think it's $12.
Mimi Sheraton: I assure you, it's not triple-O Beluga at 12.
Suzy Chase: No, but it's darn good.
Mimi Sheraton: That's $12 a grain.
Suzy Chase: I have three rapid-fire Village questions for you. Florence Meat Market or Ottomanelli's.
Mimi Sheraton: Florence. Far and away.
Suzy Chase: Really?
Mimi Sheraton: Yeah. I mean, unless I want game that's there right away. But I feel Florence being smaller is much more personal, much more dedicated, certainly less expensive as far as I know. They're very reasonable. It's a totally different atmosphere. However, if I wanted a pheasant, I would not go to Florence unless I knew well in advance and they would order it for me.
But I would go into Ottomanelli because they, in my mind, are known primarily for game. I have shopped in Ottomanelli many times, but I've never felt any attempt for them to make a personal contact. It's always been very, very cold. Very, very quick, and I'm sorry to say, very unaccommodating. Maybe if they knew me as a regular, that would not be, but there is nothing about their initial demeanor that indicates I would want to be a regular. Florence is a jewel.
Suzy Chase: Abingdon Square Greenmarket or Union Square?
Mimi Sheraton: Oh, Union Square. I mean, I go to Abingdon much more often. I'm at Abingdon every week. I'm at Union Square maybe once a month, maybe not even in this weather, but there's no comparison in terms of choice. The variety is necessarily limited at Abingdon Square, but at Union Square, there's so much more variety of choice, and quite often lower prices because of that fact.
Suzy Chase: East Village Cheese Shop or Murray's?
Mimi Sheraton: Murray's and only on days when their marvelous salesmen Cielo is there. He's not there Sunday, but I believe that's the only day he's not there. But all of the people behind the cheese counter know what they're talking about. They give you samples to taste, and it's much closer to me than East Village, so that alone would make a difference. But I think Murray's is the best cheese store in the city.
Suzy Chase: This book is the perfect Valentine's Day present for the food lovers in your life. What a pleasure it was chatting with you. Thanks for coming on Cookery By the Book podcast.
Mimi Sheraton: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Suzy. I enjoyed speaking with you.