She is, of course, most associated with the New York Times, where she was the first woman to review restaurants and then became a longtime contributor, an entertaining and taciturn and urbane voice. She also wrote excellent books — notably The Bialy Eaters, a book about the humblest of baked goods that took her to (yes) Bialystok, Poland, and is as much about a lost Eastern European Jewish world as it is about little round oniony breads. But we at New York especially know Mimi Sheraton — who died yesterday, April 6, at 97 — for one epic story whose approach is echoed in a vast amount of what we publish today.
In 1972, the ground floor of Bloomingdale’s had been given over to a fancy-food boutique, competing with the best groceries in New York City. It was meant to evoke Fortnum & Mason in London or Fauchon in Paris, full of European canned and jarred and dried foods: great tinned fish, French mustards, specialty pickles. Sheraton made a pitch to Bob Gumport, who ran the place: If you’ll send me a sample of everything you sell, I’ll taste everything and write a report. There were 24 honeys to be tested, plus one treacle. There were 86 teas, and she brewed and tasted each one twice. In her Greenwich Village apartment, she wrote “jars of jam filled a rarely used bathtub, olives and coffee replaced books on the shelves.” In the end, she tasted 1,961 items; it took long enough that a few of the first ones she got to had been discontinued by the time she was done, and others had been added to the inventory by the time she got the story into print.
For something that’s inherently a catalogue, with perhaps three or four lines of type about most of the items she tried, it’s pretty lively reading. A canned salmon steak is “sodden, washed out and ordinary.” One canned pâté is “flecked with truffles and perfumed with Cognac,” whereas another “tastes more of caustic brandy than of anything else.” It is obvious that she is having a blast.
The story quickly became magazine legend — every editor I mention it to goes wide-eyed, as in “she really did it?” — and its significance in our editorial development cannot be overstated. We’d already been an outlet that leaned into its food obsessions — there was a big citywide pizza tasting in one of our first issues — but this crazed comprehensiveness has, in the decades since, become something of a trademark, and not just when it comes to food. There’s a direct line from Mimi Sheraton’s Bloomingdale’s binge 50 years ago to, say, Vulture’s “Every Movie of the 2010s, Ranked” or Adam Platt’s 100-cereal taste test. She’s a delightfully finicky ghost in our machine, although when she turned up at our 50th-anniversary party in 2018 and I mentioned my admiration for this story, she was modest about it — but she did offer a quiet smile, saying, “Oh, that was a good one.” (We were, appropriately enough, at Katz’s, surrounded by pastrami.) And her words at the end of the Bloomingdale’s project have new resonance today: “In a way,” she wrote, “I’m sorry it’s all over. I miss the promise of new tastes to lure me out of bed in the morning and the perfect excuse for nibbling all day long.”