No writer is more qualified than Mimi Sheraton to boldly title a book “1,000 Things to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List.” Sheraton, who has spent more than six decades writing about food and travel, devoted the past 10 years to researching and writing the new 990-page encyclopedic volume of the best dishes, ingredients, markets, and restaurants the world has to offer.
“It’s somewhat of an autobiography because for the last 60-plus years I’ve been roaming all over finding these things. [Food and travel] helped me make friends all over the world, get to know places, and get a handle on other cultures,” says Sheraton, 89. From Greenwich Village, which she’s called home since getting her first apartment in the 1940s after graduating from New York University, Sheraton has traveled and written for Time, Conde Nast Traveler, and The New York Times, where she was restaurant critic from 1976-83. Although Sheraton has no other books planned, she continues working on magazine articles.
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Q. Why did you want to tackle such a huge project?
A. I met the author of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” at a fund-raising dinner. She gave me a copy of the book. I took it home and began thinking, why not 1,000 foods? My husband said, “You’re out of your mind.” And he was right. After a couple of weeks I thought what the hell, this would be a great life’s work. The contract called for delivery in two years and it took 10.
Q. Was it difficult to come up with 1,000 entries?
A. The problem was winnowing down from my initial list of about 1,800 things. I very much wanted to represent the world, so I had to take out some things I might have liked from the United States, Italy, France, or China to make room for parts of Africa, the Silk Road, and places that have interesting, lesser-known cuisines. I really wanted to give a picture of what the world eats, so I roamed all over the world.
Q. Was there anything that you were sorry to cut?
A. I forgot one of my most favorite dishes in the world; it was on my original list and I somehow just never got to writing it: Ma po tofu, the Sichuan dish that is one of my favorite comfort foods.
Q. The list includes both highbrow dishes and more humble foods.
A. The first two things that I wrote down were frozen Milky Way and caviar. They’re equally evocative for me. The more common, less expensive foods are just as important if you really want to understand what is eaten in the world. Yes there’s foie gras and caviar and saffron and truffles, but there’s an awful lot of street hot dogs and noodle dishes. That’s the way I eat.
Q. Why is it important to try different foods?
A. Sometimes food is the only thing left as all the places become homogenized with all the same shopping malls and all the same stores. For one’s own sake, one should get out of the chair to have a little fun and learn about something brand new and maybe rethink some old ideas. The texture, the color, the aromas in their natural habitats mean something quite different than they do in another place.
Q. Give an example.
A. Some of the street dumplings I had in China, particularly the guotie [pot stickers]. Those are dumplings that are steamed on one side and fried on the other. When you have them on the street, you stand there as the cover is lifted off the wok and this mushroom cloud of smoke rises up in the air. Also, morning shrimp in Oslo. You can go down to the pier in the morning when the shrimp boats come in. They have cooked the shrimp on the boat and you get these little warm bags of tiny shrimp that you stand there and peel and throw the shells back and all the seagulls come and eat the shells.
Q. Did something in your childhood plant the seeds for your career?
A. I came from a very food-minded family. My mother was an excellent cook. My father was in the wholesale fruit and vegetable business in the Washington Market. He would come home every night and talk about the fruits and vegetables that arrived from his market from all over the country. Very early on I got this subliminal message that not everything is the same and a certain amount of discernment could be rewarding. As for my love of travel, I think I was enraptured early on with the Robert Louis Stevenson poem called “Travel” that began, “I would like to rise and go/ Where the golden apples grow.” I wanted to go to faraway places. I wanted to go where the golden apples grow. And I think I’ve been rising and going for a long time.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at [email protected]