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A Veteran Food Critic’s Culinary Treasure Map—and Autobiography

Mimi Sheraton on her new book ‘1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die,’ her mother’s chicken soup, and her least-favorite Jewish dish

Leah Koenig
January 12, 2015

Food writers are regularly solicited for food advice—what to cook, how to cook it, and, most often, where and what to eat. Mimi Sheraton understands this phenomenon all too well. As a veteran food writer who began her career six decades ago (before the job title properly existed), spent nearly a decade as the restaurant critic for the New York Times starting in the 1970s, published several cookbooks, and traversed the globe many times over on her culinary quests, she has tasted, formed, and shared opinions about everything from affogato to Zanzibar duck.

In her latest book, 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die, Sheraton offers a lovingly and compellingly annotated collection of must-try foods from around the world. It is difficult to imagine someone better suited to the challenge. But as she writes in the book’s introduction, her biggest problem was not dreaming up 1,000 possible foods to include but rather “whittling down the final tally from twice that number.”

Amid the chapters highlighting nopales (cactus) from Mexico, ostrich egg omelets from South Africa, and classic French pots de crème is a section devoted to Jewish foods. Sheraton herself is Jewish, so the inclusion of matzo brei and chopped chicken liver, as well as lesser-known dishes like pizza Ebraica from Italy and a Sephardic sweet fried eggplant called berengena frita, makes inherent sense. But she would be the first to insist that she included nothing in the book on sentimental value alone. I recently spoke with Sheraton to learn more about her process for creating this culinary treasure map, how her father’s profession as a produce man set the stage for her storied career, and which Jewish food she can’t quite stomach.

You describe the book as an autobiography. What do you mean by that?

Ever since I began writing about food 60 years ago, my life has been focused on seeking out new foods and experiences. Over the years, I made friends around the world who opened me up to new tastes. I would estimate that I have personally experienced more than 90 percent of the dishes in this book, some of them many times. So, while I wrote the book as a guide for others, it really tells the story of my life.

You grew up in a food-obsessed family, right?

I began thinking about food without realizing its significance as a young child. My mother was a wonderful cook, and my father was in the wholesale fruit and vegetable business at the old Washington Market in what is now called Tribeca, so we often spoke about produce at the dinner table. Strangely, it interested me. When there was a school holiday, he would take me out to lunch in Manhattan. But he was a workaholic, so we would usually stop by his office in the market first, which always had this oniony, slightly rotted vegetable smell. I thought it was such an exciting smell!

Sometimes my family and I would go out to a dinner and a show in the city. On our way back to Brooklyn, my father would always want to stop and see what was happening, “on the street,” as he called it. It would be 11 or midnight by that point, which is when the trucks and trains would pull in and deliver the produce for the next day. In the winter, I remember seeing fires in oil drums outside and men drinking coffee and whiskey. Those experiences started my love of night markets.

Did Jewish food factor strongly into your life growing up?

On Friday afternoon, we would always smell something cooking as we came home from school—either gefilte fish and chicken soup, or pot roast and mushroom barley soup. My mother would light the candles, though I don’t think she ever said a blessing. And we did not make a real motzi [blessing] over the bread, but we always had challah. When my grandmother was alive, she baked challah every week and gave a loaf to all of her children living in New York.

My mother’s chicken soup recipe was wonderful. It included all sorts of vegetables like parsnip, leeks, and petrouchka [parsley root]. My book From My Mother’s Kitchen includes a recipe that gets it very close to right. But as a child, I eventually got so tired of chicken soup for Friday night dinner I asked my parents, “Where in the Bible does it say you have to eat chicken soup?”

Why did you choose to dedicate a whole section to Jewish food in a broader food guide?

The dishes I chose are both special in their own right and particularly Jewish. They may be influenced by places that Jews lived, but they have little twists because of kosher laws, customs, or holidays. Take the berengena frita, Sephardic sweet fried eggplant, which is eaten as a dessert. I’m sure people do something similar in Spain and other places, but not nearly with the frequency of Jewish cuisine.

Meanwhile, many years ago I became friendly with a prominent Danish family. They were Jewish, but she had Russian Jewish parents and his were German. The wife made all of the dishes like gefilte fish and chopped liver in the exact same way I did. Here was someone who was Danish and spoke Danish, but our foods were the same. To me, that’s a Jewish cuisine.

How did you decide which dishes to include in the Jewish section versus the Eastern European or Middle Eastern sections?

I did sometimes get tripped up in the geography of taste. For example, there are some foods that are known in this country as Israeli but are really from elsewhere, like shakshuka being from North Africa originally. Wherever there was a tough call, I worked around the problem by including the various countries or regions a food comes from in the headnote.

Can you share an example of one or two Jewish foods in the book you have a strong personal connection with?

Definitely the chicken fricassee with meatballs. That is the most child-pleasing dish I know short of pasta. My son loved it as a child, and my granddaughter loves it. There’s something about the easy flavor of onion, paprika, and meatballs that makes it such a classic.

I also particularly love knishes. My grandmother made a knish that was totally different from anything you see now. It was a large, horseshoe shaped thing made of dough and filled with sautéed chopped chicken livers, kasha, gribenes [chicken skin cracklings], and onions all rolled up like a jellyroll. I never saw anything like it until I wanted to do a story about a Christian Ukrainian woman in New York. When I went to visit her, she started to bring out some of her classic Easter dishes, and one of them was a knish! It was the same dough, and the same big thing, but shaped into a ring. It was the end of Lent, so her version was filled with cabbage and sauerkraut, but when she called it a knish, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck!

Are there any dishes in the book you don’t personally like?

I love everything in the book except for p’tcha [jellied calves foot], which is a staple of the traditional Ashkenazi kitchen. My parents ate it hot as an appetizer for Friday night dinner and then cold and gelled the next day. They did not usually call it p’tcha, they said feesela, meaning “little feet.” I could not stand the smell or the foot-sy, garlicky taste. But I felt it was important for me to include it because the book is about understanding how the world eats. I haven’t had it in years, and as an adult I love the richness of aspic, so maybe I should give p’tcha another try!

You have watched New York’s Jewish food scene change drastically over the decades. Which restaurants do you miss?

I miss the dairy restaurants—places like Ratner’s, the Grand Dairy Restaurant, and the Garden Cafeteria on the Lower East Side. Bernstein’s on Essex was a marvelous place. I also miss the better of the kosher style places, like Moskowitz & Lupowitz on the Lower East Side and Phil Gluckstern’s in the theater district. The service was always sloppy and a bit fresh, which I don’t think young people appreciate anymore. Plus, everything they served was pure cholesterol. Today, dairy restaurants still exist, but they tend to serve lighter, Mediterranean dishes like hummus and falafel.

Your book reads like a treasure map. How do you hope readers will use it?

Most of all, I hope they use it for a good read! As a writer, that means the most to me. My second hope is that they will want to try the dishes they have never tasted and get a refreshing look at those they do know. If it became their food bible, that’d be nice. Mostly, I hope it helps expand people’s gastronomic horizons and leads them to very good times.


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