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Remembering Mimi Sheraton’s Writing and Cooking

Mimi Sheraton, the food writer and former New York Times restaurant critic who died Thursday at 97, was a true omnivore, deeply curious about everything on the dinner table and well beyond. For fans of her writing and readers new to it, here’s a sampling of her Times work that attests to her wide range, sharp eye and delectable prose. (Ms. Sheraton was also an accomplished home cook, and links to some of her most popular recipes on New York Times Cooking are at the end of this article.)

“In the Village, 50-Year Affair for a Walker Still in Love”

Ms. Sheraton was a completist, fond of sweeping surveys and ambitious projects. In 1997, she chronicled a yearlong mission in which she walked “every street, avenue, alley, court, place, lane, mews and square in Greenwich Village,” where she had lived for a half-century.

… is Greenwich Village what it was? Considering that nothing else is what it was, myself included, I answer, yes. Relatively, the Village is exactly what it has always been: contentious, young-spirited, leisurely, historic, romantic, diverse, generally tolerant if now wary of being exploited with more than its share of social facilities, and above all human and possible.

“The Pepper Routine Can Annoy a Diner”

As drawn as Ms. Sheraton was to the big picture, few details of dining were too small to elude her critical gaze. In 1981, she inquired into the origins of a tableside rite that had quickly gone from grinding to grating:

Even the best of ideas, carried to extremes, can deteriorate into absurdity. As evidence of that possibility, consider freshly ground black pepper — surely a lively, savory and superior alternative to the faded, ready-ground variety. But in too many restaurants, the ritual surrounding the use of the pepper mill can be considered only ridiculous and totally in opposition to the basic tenets of connoisseurship. … One almost suspects that the chef has deliberately left pepper out of his preparation so that the captain has a chance to give evidence of service and earn a generous tip.

“Ups and Downs of Sunny Side Up”

With the same attention to granular detail, she walked readers through her precise instructions for making one of her favorite dishes, fried eggs — from the size of the eggs to the preferred type of pan to the proper way of eating them:

Some break yolks over whites, a method as unattractive as another in which whites are eaten first and then whole yolks are consumed intact. The neatest and most efficient method is to place the eggs over lightly buttered toast, so the yolk can be absorbed as it is cut and can be eaten neatly with fork and knife. Eggs-over-easy seem desirable only when a fried-egg sandwich is the ultimate goal, but that is another subject for another time.

“Windows on the World: Food Markets Put the Character of a Country in Sharp Focus”

Ms. Sheraton loved food markets of all kinds. In this 1981 survey of markets around the world, she reveled in watching the people who work and shop in them:

For a newcomer to a city, food markets offer a revealing glimpse of the inhabitants going about the routine of daily life. Intent on the buying and selling at hand, they lose outward reserve, and the careful observer notes whether there is bargaining, as in vegetable markets along the Mediterranean, or if prices are fixed, as in Northern Europe. There may be a sense of distrust between customers and vendors, as evidenced by shoppers who choose each apple and bunch of grapes carefully, look fish squarely in the eye and then monitor the weighing, alert for a heavy thumb on the scale. And how carefully do they count their change?

“A Viennese Nouvelle Cuisine”

As The Times’s restaurant critic from 1976 to 1983, she was keenly aware of the pitfalls of her profession. A 1981 review lavished four stars on Vienna ’79, an Upper East Side restaurant — yet lamented the effect such a rating can have:

Although it seems quite natural that a negative review can damage a restaurant, it may be surprising to learn that a rave sometimes does a kind of damage all its own. Whether because of greed or inexperience, a restaurateur who gets a three-star or four-star rating, may pack the house beyond the capacities and temperaments of its kitchen and dining-room staff. The inevitable result of such action is poor food and rude or careless service, and a spate of justified complaints.

“Both Friends and Foes Feast at Palm — And Here, for First Time, Is Its Menu”

Ms. Sheraton also leveled with readers about her own biases, as in this 1976 restaurant review that awarded four stars, the paper’s top rating, to the Palm, a classic New York steakhouse:

By now, it should be obvious which camp I am in when it comes to Palm: mine is an adoration based on 20 years of ecstatic gorging, and if the fried shrimp sometimes taste of iodine and the waiter occasionally brings me clams on the half shells when I have ordered them garlicky and arreganata, it only proves that extraordinary does not mean perfect.

An Early ‘Find’: Rao’s

Ms. Sheraton’s trove of reviews, stretching back to the 1970s, offers an armchair history of New York restaurants. In 1977, she gave three stars to an East Harlem establishment that went on to become the archetypal place-you-can’t-get-into:

Rao’s, a tiny, unprepossessing but excellent Italian restaurant improbably situated at the corner of Pleasant Avenue and East 114th Street, just behind Benjamin Franklin High School in one of the city’s most broken‐down and devastated neighborhoods, is the sort of place every reviewer longs to come upon. It is, in every sense, a find. Set a few steps down in an otherwise ramshackle building, Rao’s looks, at first glance, like little more than a prosperous neighborhood bar, which it is in part, servicing the few Italian families still living along the more spruced‐up streets this area.

“Scandinavian Food Before It Was Fashionable”

Long after her days as a critic, she kept up on new developments in dining — though this 2011 piece on New Nordic cuisine came with the caveat that in food, few things are truly new:

Not to gloat, of course, but the resurgence of interest in Scandinavian food is something I have been anticipating for a long, long time. Currently the cuisine is termed ‘Nordic,’ as championed by the celebrated Copenhagen chef René Redzepi, who will discuss his inventive cooking style at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday. He and his disciples swear by ingredients that are local, seasonal and, preferably, wild. Nordic also has a nice exotic ring, summoning visions of Greenlanders and Laplanders fishing through ice, simmering up blubber confits and salt-curing chunks of Donner and Blitzen.

The Critic as Home Cook

Ms. Sheraton also wrote cookbooks: “The German Cookbook” from 1965, “From My Mother’s Kitchen” from 1979, and others. Some of her recipes can be found on New York Times Cooking, including those for mushroom and barley soup, potato pancakes and pot roast.

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