Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times’s restaurant critic in the formative years of my newspaper-reading life, the late seventies to early eighties, has caused a bit of a foodosphere kerfuffle by giving a characteristically cranky interview to a newish online New York publication called Capital. The main thing she grumps about is her former paper, which, she says, “has been exaggerated in its Brooklyn coverage [of restaurants] because most of them live there.” The “them” to which she refers are the Times’s dining editor, Pete Wells, and its featured writers, among them the man who holds her old job, Sam Sifton, and Times Magazine contributor Amanda Hesser. Sheraton’s comments have elicited some witty parries via Twitter from the Times’s current crop of professional eaters.
I went through a similar thing with ol’ Mimi a few years back when I was reporting my book The United States of Arugula. Since I grew up reading her work, I was eager to interview her, and I sent her an appropriately fulsome note explaining how much I would value her perspective as I undertook my project, a chronicle of the remarkable evolution of American foodways and food savvy over the last 50 years. Mimi turned me down flat, saying that the very premise of my book was based on “false hype.” She suggested I not even bother with the book. So, Brooklyners, take heart: It’s not just your borough but ALL OF AMERICA that has fallen under a spell of phony gastro-euphoria.
Still, I somehow managed to get Mimi on the phone, to establish the teensiest of rapports with her (mainly because we live within blocks of each other in Greenwich Village), and to pry a few reluctant quotes out of her. I actually found the experience kind of fun, because Mimi turned out to be an authentic Olde New York curmudgeon, with plenty of opinions and no desire to be liked. Calvin Trillin is often sold to us as a curmudgeon, but he’s a false curmudgeon, a man who looks the part and sometimes plays the part but is actually polite and lovable. Not Mimi.
And then I had the experience of interviewing a woman who out-curmudgeoned Mimi, the food historian Karen Hess. Hess had recently been widowed; her husband, John Hess, had been an investigative reporter for the Times and was briefly, before Sheraton, in the early seventies, the paper’s restaurant critic. Together, the Hesses had decried the delusional, hypey food press in the very culinary heyday that Sheraton now pines for. Their 1977 jeremiad The Taste of America is one of the nastiest books I’ve ever read, a scorched-earth critique of Sheraton, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, and their ilk that makes Anthony Bourdain sound like a host on the OWN network.
Karen Hess was no nicer towards these people when I met her in person. She called Child a “dithering idiot,” Claiborne a man of “disgusting” taste, and Mimi “stupid.” This was not a bitter byproduct of her widowhood; Hess had always been this way. As if to demonstrate this fact, she delightedly led me to a hallway outside of her kitchen, where, mounted on a wall, was a laminated copy of an old Sheraton review that she had put up, with highlighting and angry handwritten comments in the margins, because she considered it the worst piece of food writing she had ever seen. (I wish I could remember which restaurant Mimi was reviewing in the offending review, and what Hess’s specific beefs were, but I can’t; I only remember a lot of appalled exclamation points.)
I don’t know that we’ll experience this breed of curmudgeon again. With the advent of blogging and tweeting, professional writers need no longer conceal their cranky sides. They now preempt their future curmudgeon-geezer phases by venting in ways that they can’t when writing for a genteel print publication. (Just look at Buzz Bissinger’s Twitter feed.) So, youngsters, enjoy Mimi’s difficultness while you can.