Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Mimi Sheraton's Life

Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life is more of a memoir of food-writing and restaurant-reviewing experiences than a full autobiography. The chapters on Mimi Sheraton's New York Times reviewing and other celebrity activities were much less interesting than one very surprising chapter titled "The Care and Feeding of Passengers, Patients and Other Captives." In this chapter, she describes a number of projects that made her aware of "the wide gap between genuinely good intentions and bad results," though some of her observations undermine the idea of good intentions.
"I often wonder how any food could possibly be so badly prepared and handled. In noir moments at hospitals or on long flights, I try to figure out how I would go about re-creating the horrors before me. Where would I start? In what diabolical cookbook would one find such recipes? On what ignominious grocery shelf is the special seasoning marked 'Institutional' that is surely used to impart the characteristic flavor and aroma, a combination of chemicals, foodishness, stale sweetness and desolation?" (p. 160)
Sheraton explored the methods and motives of people who provided school lunches and breakfasts, hospital meals (after a two-week hospitalization, she emerged as a consultant), airline meals (back in the day when airlines provided little trays with what appeared to be meals), food in museum cafes, and prison food. She even visited an off-shore oil rig where -- improbably -- the food wasn't so bad. A historic note on food for the British military outposts in the mid-19th century made it clear that the problems she found were far from new.

Her analysis leaves little room for optimism. Lack of funds, need to please people with widely varying tastes and expectations, and many other obstacles seemed to de-rail any of her efforts to make improvements.

As food autobiographies go, this wouldn't be at the top of my list -- I prefer, for example, A. J. Liebling's Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, which I think influenced Sheraton's title or Ruth Reichl's several volumes, which I think influenced her restaurant-review chapters. But it was a good read for my very snowy afternoon.

7 comments:

ArnyTracy said...

We had a friend who worked on the rigs off Louisiana. He reported that the cook was by far the most important person on the rig, and excellent cooks were widely sought for their effect on morale, where shifts were 12 hours a day and might last for two weeks at a time.

Mae Travels said...

Mimi Sheraton remarked on how the oil rig cooks were amazingly good, as you say -- she said it was possible to have good food because the workers were generally from the same food tradition/background (New Orleans/SE Texas) and so they could have regional food with a consistent taste and spicing. One of the degraders of institutional food, she said, was the need to please people from widely varying food cultures.

~~louise~~ said...

I was so excited to see this post in your side-bar Mae. Alas, I too would have preferred to read about Mimi Sheraton's New York Time's career or her culinary education. Although I knew she did a lot of traveling, I had no idea she became regarded as somewhat as an "expert" in the field of institutional cooking. Thanks for sharing, Mae.

Mae Travels said...

Hi Louise,
It's not that Sheraton's education and reviewing (at the NYT and elsewhere) were absent, it's that those chapters were just not that exciting. Her education was mainly by doing -- she went to business school and didn't cover her much later class at Cordon Bleu. The part about institutions was what I found most interesting.

~~louise~~ said...

Thanks Mae, I understand. A bit thick these days I suppose:) I was wondering, by chance, does the book include the date she was born? I know she lived in Brooklyn but was just curious in case I do a future post on one of her books. Thanks again, Mae...

Mae Travels said...

I think Mimi Sheraton's birthdate is a closely guarded secret, Louise. She seems to have gone to college in the late 1940s, though, which suggests she was born in the early 30s. I googled quite a bit and never found more than that -- let me know if you turn up an actual date.

~~louise~~ said...

Sometimes it's so difficult to unravel these things and not only for the women:) I'm going to do my best to see if I can find it. I'll let you know when I do. Thanks Mae...