Eating My Words
by Mimi Sheraton
Review by Bill Marsano
Years ago at a certain magazine, Mimi Sheraton was counted a tough cookie by the other editors, who preferred saps. I therefore often volunteered to edit her column, hoping my stock would rise through self-sacrifice. It did. So my free time, for the fact was her column was a breeze.
Of course, if an editor mucked around with her copy (and that, I can say without exposing any trade secrets, is what editors generally do), then it wasn’t a breeze. So after reading her tight-knit prose, her well-reasoned judgments, her lucid thoughts, I'd call her about a couple of minor points and we'd agree on changing or not in about ten minutes. Then, with my door shut and no one in any case daring to approach Sheraton Control, I had the afternoon free. (Later, when other editors asked how things had gone, I just rolled my eyes, and basked in their gratitude.)
Keys to Sheraton's style were sticking to the subject and not showing off. Her judgments were measured, not designed to become sound bites; the meal was the star, not the reviewer. Only now does she write about (among many other things) herself, and what an interesting self she turns out to be. She covers a lot of ground, including childhood before the war (i.e., World War II); college-girl adventures in New York City (especially funny: her story of breaking up with a civilian boyfriend while being attached to two other guys in the armed services); early work in home-furnishings journalism; plunging into food writing through a passion for travel; her ups and downs as a nationally known food critic for the New York Times (and other publications); and her attempts to improve what those in the trade call "volume feedings and mass management" and the rest of us call jail, airline, school and hospital food.
Sheraton has a fine line in dry wit and is always informative: Most readers will learn some surprising things about restaurants and reviewing. She lists the 20 most-asked questions and answers every one, and provides a good idea of the pressures applied to a critic by big-name restaurateurs--and by people who think they're critics just because they run a newspaper. (Odd--but I don't think the Times has reviewed her book. Odd.) But she isn't dishy. Anyone looking here for gossip, innuendo and the settling of scores has come to the wrong place. Sheraton conquers but she does not stoop.
And she does it all in 240 pages. One reason is that she writes tightly and tartly. (At least one other well-known "foodie" has published two books, totaling nearly 600 pages, and still isn't finished.) Another is that although she speaks often of wonderful dishes she gives no recipes. Good for her. Recipes are turning up in lots of books they don't belong in these days, including mysteries and popular novels--which usually means, I think, the author hasn't really got the goods, and knows it, and hopes I won't notice. (For much the same reason I resist nutritional puns traditional in this sort of review. I refuse to call this a "bubbling bouillaisse of a book.") The only time Sheraton comes close to such nonsense is with her brisk instructions (maybe a dozen words?) on making a Jewish chicken--or a chicken Jewish.
Sheraton's 240 pages go rattling by--there's no padding--and because even now I read as an editor, I ticked a few things: I disagree with her use of "ascribe" and "masterful," and former New York City Mayor John Lindsay would, if he could, on personal orthography. Once where she says Michelin I'm almost certain she means Gault-Millau, but that's about it. (Come to think of it, where was the copy editor?) In all, the experience was like those long-gone magazine days: great reading and effortless, too.
--Bill Marsano is a professional writer and editor.