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Remembering restaurant critic and food writer Mimi Sheraton

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today we're going to remember restaurant critic and food writer Mimi Sheraton, who died last week at the age of 97. When she was a child, one of her favorite dishes was her mother's chicken a la king. She went on to dine in many of the finest restaurants in the world. She wrote about food for New York Magazine for five years. Then from 1976 to 1983, she was the food and restaurant critic for The New York Times. She was the first woman to review restaurants for that paper. Her verdicts were reputed to have the power to make or break new restaurants, and she often dressed in disguise to make sure she got the treatment of a regular diner. Over one 11-month period, she tasted everything in the Bloomingdale's food department, 1,961 items. It was the subject of one of her best-known articles. Sheraton wrote 16 books, including cookbooks and a memoir. When she became food critic for Time magazine in 1984, she broadened her focus to national and international eating trends. But she continued to cover the New York restaurant scene with her subscription-only newsletter, "Mimi Sheraton's Tastes" (ph). Terry Gross spoke to Mimi Sheraton in 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: When you're reviewing a restaurant, what's your method of ordering so that you can really judge how the food is prepared?

MIMI SHERATON: Well, usually we're four people. My husband and I usually go first to see if it's going to be worth reviewing, but then it's usually four people. And I ask people to order what I want to see, and as the visits progress, the choices narrow. But what I try for is an across-the-board sampling of the menu. I want to see obviously different foods, how they do veal and chicken and fish and beef, but I also want to see how they fry and broil and saute and poach. I want to see, if they have them, how classic dishes are rendered, and I want to know how the house creations are rendered. I like to see a restaurant at a slow meal and at a very busy meal. If there's an important lunch scene as well as dinner, I make sure that half of my visits are at lunch and the other half at dinner. I never review in fewer than three visits and rarely in fewer than four or five.

GROSS: You are always very careful about protecting your identity. I mean, that's one of the things that is legendary about you. You're never photographed with your face shown. How have you managed to keep your identity as protected as it's been, though, to tell you the truth, I imagine a lot of New York restaurants really do know who you are?

SHERATON: Indeed, they do. I would say about half of the places I go to in New York know who I am. I can still get into 50% of them without them knowing. But the other truth of that is that the 50% who know me are 100% of the fashionable places where I would least like to be known. I mean, they're most tuned into it. And I've been doing this for a long time, so waiters move around from job to job, and a waiter might recognize me if it's an owner who hasn't been on the scene before. But beyond that, outside of New York, I have never been recognized in a restaurant except maybe by a diner who knows me, a friend. So I have absolutely no problem outside of New York. And of course, in my work for Time magazine or my newsletter or Conde Nast Traveler or any of the other places I write for, I do a lot of work outside of New York and outside of the United States, so I have no problem there.

What I do in New York - the places that really know me will no longer be fooled by a wig and glasses, which is what I used to do, because they know my husband, because they know what the rest of me looks like, even without my head. So that doesn't work. But I never make a reservation in my own name, ever. If it's a place that I know will know me, we always eat with two other people that the restaurant will not know, and they arrive first to see if they get the table we requested when making the reservation. I usually say, you know, put us in the back or put us in the front or could we have a round table instead of a banquette? So we see if that's honored. If not, we ask the people who are going to be there first, our friends, to ask for that kind of table. If they're not given it, then they just take what they get. Now and then they try to tip to see if that will get them a table. And I must say that rarely works.

GROSS: Do you hope that it won't work? Would that be a sign...

SHERATON: I don't care.

GROSS: ...Of corruption if tipping got them a better table?

SHERATON: I don't care. I mean, if you say do I hope, I mean, I don't really want a restaurant to do the wrong thing.

GROSS: What's the - is the wrong thing to accept the tip and show you the better table?

SHERATON: Indeed it is. It's called selling tables in the restaurant business. And it's supposed to be a no-no. In a place that has a really good management, they would not go for that. It's a crummy kind of thing to do.

GROSS: Can I interrupt here and ask you what kind of wigs you used to wear?

SHERATON: Well, I have a whole wardrobe. There was one that was sort of henna, a long pageboy with bangs, which I called my '30s Greenwich Village lady poet wig. I had a very pale, silvery blonde bouffant that came down over one eye, which I called my Five Towns wig, which are the five towns out in Nassau County.

GROSS: In Long Island.

SHERATON: Yes. And I had a very curly sort of - not quite black hair 'cause that would look very strange with my skin, but quite dark, that I really didn't have a name for. And those are the three I used a great deal of the time. I still take them sometimes for certain out-of-town places where a few customers might know me. In Washington, D.C., and Chicago, I often take the wigs.

GROSS: Now in your newsletter, you recently described one Italian restaurant as having an atmosphere that is gloomy, dated and suggestive of an old-age home. That's a pretty negative thing to say.

SHERATON: (Laughter) It was a pretty negative place.

GROSS: I'm going to read something else you said that is also equally scary for a restaurant. You described another restaurant's special white room as a blazing dining room that suggests a high-toned interrogation center. Now, if I were that restaurant, I would not be pleased.

SHERATON: Well, I'm not in the business of pleasing restaurants.

GROSS: Were you ever threatened by a restaurant owner?

SHERATON: Never really flatly. There was one restaurant that got a very bad review, and it was a very famous restaurant for a long time, used to be very good. And they got a very bad review in my early days of reviewing at The New York Times. And they did say, if you know what's good for you, you will never come in here again. But that's the closest that anyone has ever threatened me.

GROSS: Anybody ever sued you or threatened to?

SHERATON: A couple of times, yes. There was - once papers were actually served, but nothing ever came of it. And a couple of times restaurants have threatened to but never did it.

GROSS: I guess that would be a very bad precedent for food writers if you could get sued for saying bad things about a restaurant.

SHERATON: Well, you can get sued. And in fact, Gault and Millau, the French critics, were not only sued, but they lost a judgment that was later reversed. Mr. Chow sued them for $20,000 in damages and won, but that was overturned in an appeal. You can be sued, indeed. And I think one of the things that has protected me is that anyone who sues me for what I had written in The New York Times or Time magazine takes on The New York Times and Time magazine and are probably reluctant to do so. And for the newsletter, I indeed will have libel insurance.

GROSS: Well, you are very controversial because your opinions are so clearly stated. If you are recognized in a restaurant in spite of the wig you might be wearing...

SHERATON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In spite of your efforts to remain anonymous, are you ever asked to leave?

SHERATON: I have been refused service once and asked to leave once and did so in both cases, although I have a number of lawyers now who feel that a restaurant's case would not hold up. There was an old interpretation of what's called the innkeepers' law that stated that a hotel or restaurant owner had the right to refuse service to anyone he or she wanted to as long as it was not on grounds of race, religion, sex. And so when - I was always prepared for that happening. And I asked the lawyers at the Times what they wanted me to do. And they said, just go.

And it happened at the Water Club on the East River. I had had one meal there when they didn't recognize me. And then I sat down. We were six people. And someone came over and said that they had reason to believe there was a critic at the table (laughter). And they wouldn't serve us. So we left. And then another restaurant refused me a table when I got there with a reservation that someone else had made. However, there are - as I say now, I've been hearing from a lot of lawyers, even some up at the Cornell Hotel School, who feel they would love to fight that case because they don't think that that would stand up. I avoid it unless too many places do it because it will be a pyrrhic victory. My picture - you know, if it got to be a really talked about case and my picture in all the papers and so on, it would defeat something else that I'm trying to do.

GROSS: One more thing about anonymity. Now, your secret's safe with me about what you look like because, after all, I'm speaking to you from Philadelphia. You're in New York. We're speaking via satellite. And I can't really see what you look like. However, the engineer who's recording your interview in New York right now might have a Polaroid camera. I mean, does this ever happen, that someone takes a shot of you and tries to mail it to a major American publication to blow your cover?

SHERATON: In the first place, how do you know I'm really Mimi Sheraton? I may have sent someone else.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERATON: And no one knows.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERATON: But there are pictures around. And I think that anyone who wants one has one.

BIANCULLI: Mimi Sheraton speaking to Terry Gross in 1987 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "LEAVING PARIS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with longtime restaurant critic and author Mimi Sheraton. She died last week at the age of 97.

GROSS: I think, perhaps, one of the worst hazards of the trade a food writer faces is overeating. You're forced to have rich meals and many of them. And I know that you had taken a five-month leave from The New York Times when you were still working with them to lose weight. Is this really difficult to deal with when you're writing about food?

SHERATON: It's very difficult to deal with. But in truth, I would have to say that I probably have pursued this career as an excuse to overeat. I think that the people who are really good at it are all in that position. You love to eat. And therefore, this gives you a reason to do so and an excuse to do so. But I do try - I mean, even though I am very much overweight, I try not to have it get any worse than it is by compensating when I'm not reviewing. That's the trick. And that's also a very hard part because I love to cook. So if it's a night when I'm not going to a restaurant and I'm going to prepare dinner at home, I have that awful tug as to whether to make a simple piece of steamed fish or whether to make a marvelous bowl of pasta with, you know, something wonderful on it.

And so it is a struggle. I try to swim. I try to walk. I try to take periods off when I don't have to eat. And my husband and I, when we are going on a real vacation, we try to find a place that is warm, that has very interesting things to see and that has terrible food. And we have found a few countries that fulfill that. Because if we go someplace that has wonderful food and food shops, we will spend all of our time in it. And that's what I do all year long.

GROSS: When you started writing for Time magazine, you said that you were especially interested in institutional food, where the eaters are a somewhat captive audience. Why are you interested in that?

SHERATON: Because it's becoming an increasingly important part of eating in the United States, and because I think that that food is much worse than it has to be. It's school eating. It's employee cafeteria eating. It's hospitals. It's airlines. It's executive dining rooms. And it's pretty soon going to be about a third of the eating that most Americans do. And I feel the psychology and economy behind it are necessitating a kind of bad food that could be improved.

GROSS: Now, you've said that the only real dismal failure of your career was when you were a consultant for one year to a university hospital trying to improve patient food there.

SHERATON: Yes.

GROSS: What happened? This is interesting. Because of your interest in institutional food, apparently you tried to (laughter) make it better in one instance and couldn't do it.

SHERATON: That's what got me interested in institutional food, because it's the hierarchy, the bureaucracy you have to work with, the remoteness of the people who are going to eat the food from the people who are preparing it. And because of the attitudes developed by the people who prepare the food in enormous quantities, it suddenly becomes something else. The thing that defeated me there was very much the bureaucracy, the unions, the inability to get people to change their ways when you weren't there. My only solution was really to shoot the first person who deviated from a recipe.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERATON: That was - and I felt, then we'd have no trouble with anybody else. But of course, they would have gone on strike if we had done that.

GROSS: You would have lost your job anyways.

SHERATON: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, you - as part of your survey of institutional food, you did one piece in which you flew all the different airlines and compared the meals that you were served on the planes.

SHERATON: There was one particular leg of a United Airlines flight that had superb food because I think it prepared the kind of food that could be done well within those circumstances.

GROSS: It struck me as a very extravagant trip to make, to buy all these airline tickets just to taste the food, though maybe you had other reasons for traveling.

SHERATON: I didn't buy the ticket. Conde Nast bought the ticket...

GROSS: Right.

SHERATON: ...As a story that would get a lot of attention, and it certainly did. And that's - it was very important to do. And en route, I did four other stories for them. So it wasn't quite as extravagant as it looked.

GROSS: What is your native food? What was the food that you were brought up on?

SHERATON: Well, I was brought up in Brooklyn in a Jewish family that was not kosher. And my mother made what is considered Jewish food, but she made a lot of what is American food and what certainly was at the period the sort of Fannie Farmer School of Cooking - fried oysters, clam chowder, chicken pie and traditional American food. I did write about it in a book called "From My Mother's Kitchen." And it was - it is - all of the food that I grew up on.

But my parents loved to eat in restaurants. And we did go to what we called the city, meaning Manhattan, quite often to eat. And there were a few good restaurants, especially seafood, in Brooklyn at that time, and we ate a lot of Chinese food. So we were always aware of all of that. And my father was in the food business. He was in the wholesale fruit and produce business in Washington Market. And my mother was a good cook, so there was always talk of food at the table and in the family.

GROSS: You had a very nice piece in the book about your mother's cooking, a piece on comfort cures and the kinds of food that your mother used to make for you when you were sick and home from school back...

SHERATON: Yes.

GROSS: ...When you were a child.

SHERATON: Yes. I still make them for myself.

GROSS: Do you?

SHERATON: And I...

GROSS: What are they? What are the foods?

SHERATON: Well, there were things like - as one was getting better, there would be eggnogs. There would be cinnamon toast. There would be baked custard with nutmeg on top, inevitably, chicken soup. But I also liked things like oatmeal. And I made a lot of those for my son when he was young. And they still seem to work.

GROSS: How much do you eat out now?

SHERATON: I would say almost every night. We eat home on the average now about 1 1/2 times a week. And I eat a couple of lunches a week out.

GROSS: Do you find that you behave differently or even chew differently when you're eating out than you do when you're at home?

SHERATON: I think I spend more time at the meal when I'm eating out. You know, when I left the Times, one of the things that I missed was cooking at home. And my husband said - no, I said, now we're going to be able to eat at home. And so the first four nights, I cooked dinner at home. And the fourth night, we just looked at each other across the table and said, this is boring. The food was fine, but there was no scene. There was no one else to look at. And the meal is over so quickly when you eat at home compared to when you eat in a restaurant. So I don't think I chew differently. We probably eat more when we eat at home because we can have seconds.

GROSS: Right. I don't know if you're the kind of person who has to finish everything that's on the plate. Like, whatever the portion is, small or large, that's what you're going to eat.

SHERATON: Well, I try very hard not to. I almost always do finish. However, the one course that I find I can taste and leave is dessert. I'm not a dessert person. So I can take a couple of bites of a dessert and leave it. But I don't think that I can practice what I call pasta interruptus. I think that would not work.

GROSS: Do you have any guilty pleasures in food, foods that aren't especially well prepared or even especially good for you that you really crave and love?

SHERATON: Do you mean junk food, or do you mean food that isn't good for me? I mean, I like everything that isn't good for me, and I eat it because I'm, fortunately, quite healthy, and I don't have cholesterol or high blood pressure problems. But there is no junk food that I crave. I would not say that. I mean, I like good potato chips. I like good peanut butter. I like well-made pizza. But I don't consider that junk food. I don't like Twinkies, and I don't like frozen anything. So I don't really feel guilty except for eating too much.

BIANCULLI: Mimi Sheraton speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The veteran restaurant critic and author, the first woman to serve as a restaurant critic for The New York Times, died last week. She was 97 years old. After a break, we'll remember actor Michael Lerner, who appeared in the movie "Barton Fink" and in several TV series and telemovies, including "M*A*S*H" and "The Missiles Of October." And film critic Justin Chang reviews "Showing Up," the new film from director Kelly Reichardt. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUADRO NUEVO'S "SERENATA CELESTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.