Mimi Sheraton Talks Jews and Food
Mimi Sheraton, restaurant critic for the New York Times from 1975 to 1983, hasn’t stopped writing about food: Sheraton’s memoir, Eating my Words, came out in 2006, and as recently as last summer she published a piece in the New York Times Dining and Wine section about searching for some of the best classic “New York” foods that have disappeared over the years. However, Sheraton is perhaps best known for her cookbooks, which include The German Cookbook and The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup—filled with recipes for comfort food the likes of which our bubbe’s bubbe would have made. I talked with Mimi about growing up in a family of foodies, New York’s changing food culture, and the secret to making good gefilte fish. Here is an extended version of the interview, the first part of which also appears in our food symposium in the July/August 2013 issue of Moment.
Is there a special relationship between Jews and food?
I think there’s a special relationship between all human beings and food. The relationships may be different and the foods may be different, but I think just about every group is related to certain foods and certain attitudes and customs and so on.
Jews are known to talk about and think about food a lot, but so do Italians, and the Chinese, and lots of other people. So I wouldn’t say that it’s unique to the Jews, but I think they have their own way of caring about it and dealing with it.
How has being Jewish influenced your relationship with food?
I don’t know if it’s because I was Jewish or because of my family. Food was very important in my family. My mother was a very good cook, and we had lots of company and lots of special meals. I always was made to feel that it’s important to know how to cook well. My father was in the food business—he was in the wholesale food and fruit business, and he used to talk about various products: which are best, apples from here, apples from there, seasons for this or that, so I think I developed the discernment and the desire to find out which was the best of something. It was played out in many Jewish foods but not totally—we were not kosher, and we ate a lot of what I consider Fannie Farmer-era American foods, as well.
You grew up in New York and have lived there your whole life. How have you seen the culinary scene change over the years?
The culinary scene in general [in New York] has become much more diverse in terms of the kinds of ethnic foods we now have available. I think the best part of it is how many more products are now available that were not available before, even before the 60s. Two examples: The varieties of mushroom and lettuce that one can find in even the average supermarket now is so much greater than what you used to be able to find. It’s quite amazing to think how many ingredients were considered “special” in the 40s, 50s and 60s that you now take for granted.
Are there any foods you can’t find anymore?
There are certain kinds of very local peaches that I don’t see around anymore. The other difference is dishes available in restaurants—there are many kinds of dishes you don’t see anymore, either because theyre not considered fancy enough or because they’re not considered healthy and nobody wants to eat them anymore, or just changing fashions. There are fashions in food, and certain dishes that were very fashionable at one time, just like a certain kind of clothing, can be out of fashion the next.
Does any particular food or recipe come to mind when you think of quintessentially Jewish food?
I would say it’s a recipe for gefilte fish and a recipe for chopped liver—two things I am never happy with when I am eating anyplace else but home, when I have made them.
I have a very good recipe that was my grandmother’s handed down to my mother, and when I make it around Passover time that’s the way I make it. [When making] chopped liver I use chicken livers, which many restaurants do not, and [I put] hard-boiled egg and onions in them, and griebenes—cracklings from rendering chicken fat, [which] I chop in with lots of salt and pepper.
So is there a secret to making good gefilte fish?
I like to have whitefish and pike, [and] if it’s a good season for crop I put a little of that in. If there’s any secret, it’s lots and lots of onions in the pot with [the gefilte fish] when [it’s] cooking—besides grinding some (onions) in with them. [I also use] a lot of salt and pepper (but no sugar), some eggs and usually a little matzah meal. And then when I buy [the fish] I ask the market (where I grind the fish) to keep the skin and the bones and the head, and I make a stock out of that. I actually poach the fish in that stock, with a lot of onions and carrots, because if you have the bones and the skin, when the whole thing chills you get a very good jelly with it. And then I like to make my own freshly grated horseradish.
Jews have a long tradition of being food critics and food writers—some names that come to mind are Ruth Reichl, Adam Rapoport, Michael Pollan, etc.—do you think this is because Jews are especially critical of food, or because Jews tend to be critical of everything?
(laughs) I think Jews are critical of everything!