Mimi Sheraton's '1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die'

Originally published on February 11, 2015 4:01 pm

Mimi Sheraton has written about food for some six decades. She’s been the restaurant critic for The New York Times, traveled the world writing about food for numerous magazines and published several books including the James Beard award winning “The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup: Recipes and Lore to Comfort Body and Soul.”

In her latest book, Sheraton gives readers “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List.” It has not only the foods Mimi recommends, but brief descriptions and suggestions as to where readers can find them.

And as Sheraton told Here & Now’s Robin Young, the list embraces not only haute cuisine, but everyday items as well.

“The first two items I thought of when I started to make the list was frozen Milky Way and caviar and that seemed to delineate the focus of the book,” she said.

Book Excerpt: ‘1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die’

By Mimi Sheraton

Odd as it may seem, this book is my autobiography, or at least a very big part of it. During the six decades I have been writing about food, I have gone in search of the world’s most outstanding dishes, ingredients, restaurants, farms, shops, and markets, and met with more chefs, home cooks, and food craftsmen and producers than I can count. Along the way, I have reaped many rewards by way of life experiences, especially in foreign countries, where I have found food to be a ready introduction to other cultures.

Traveling to gather material for articles or books, I met many strangers who, because we came together on the common ground of an interest in food, often became fast—and, in many cases, lasting—friends. Quests for various ingredients and dishes have taken me to corners of the world that I would not have ventured into otherwise, teaching me much about social customs and attitudes, local celebrations, spiritual and superstitious beliefs, and the richness of human ingenuity that enables so many to make so much out of so little.

All of which should not be surprising, considering that food and the concerns surrounding it are central to life, simple sustenance being an essential aspect of all of our days. Such were the thoughts that guided me in making the selections for this book. I strove for an overall collection that includes not only the pleasurable—though that was my primary purpose—but also the unusual (the uninitiated might even say outlandish and bizarre)—Hirn mit Ei (scrambled eggs with brains, see page 295), Liang Ban Hai Zhe (Sichuan cold jellyfish salad, see page 772), Testina (roasted lamb’s or calf’s head, see page 244), and more. The aim was to curate a sort of jigsaw puzzle that pieces together a picture of what the world eats.

My unshakeable interest in food undoubtedly traces back to my Brooklyn childhood, growing up in a family where passion for the subject was always paramount, if not obsessive. My mother was an outstanding, ambitious cook and hostess who tried recipes clipped from newspapers and who judged all other women by their ability to cook, especially their prowess at chicken soup. My father was in the wholesale fruit and produce business in New York’s bygone Washington Market, then located in the now fashionable neighborhood known as Tribeca.

When we gathered for dinner each evening, not only would we discuss the details of the food before us, but my father would describe the various fruits and vegetables he had handled that day and assess their relative merits.

Thus I gathered early that California oranges were more flavorful than those from

Florida, but the southern state was the winner when it came to grapefruit. He considered apples from the West Coast inferior (not enough cold nights) to those from New York and Massachusetts, and as for peaches, none held a candle to Georgia’s Elberta freestones.

Not surprisingly, those evaluations have stuck with me through the years, but the most important lesson I took away was to practice discernment. Ever since then, I have paid close attention to the qualities of whatever I am tasting and have compared one iteration with another. Wherever possible, I have tried to hold the choices in this book up to the same standards, allowing that much has changed for better and worse over the years in the name of progress.

Coupled with my interest in food was my incurable wanderlust, the seeds of which I believe were first planted in me as I read a poem fittingly titled “Travel” by Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses. The opening lines tempt me even today: “I should like to rise and go / Where the golden apples grow.” I have been rising and going in search of golden apples for many years, and, in the pursuit of food knowledge, have now visited nearly everywhere that I originally longed to see.

Indeed, a savvy editor I worked for once accused me of being a person who appears to be doing one thing, but who is really doing something else. He sure had my number, as the food articles I proposed were invariably inspired by the places I wanted to see. (Want to visit southern Spain? Why not suggest an article on the growing, harvesting, and curing of capers? It worked for me and might for you.) That is one reason this book is organized geographically by cuisine, rather than by type of food. It is almost impossible for me to understand an ingredient or a dish without knowing its original context, much of which I tried to impart with each entry.

My problem was not arriving at a thousand entries but whittling down the final tally from twice that number. Almost every single one of the chosen thousand has a special meaning for me, due to my outsize and enduring love for it, fond memories of the circumstances under which it was first experienced, or the ways in which it has permanently influenced my taste.

Many of my thoughts and longings for individual foods and meals have been inspired by oblique or direct references in cultural works, including books, films, and paintings. Fiction such as Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and nonfiction such as Eleanor Clark’s Oysters of Locmariaquer; films that are all about food, such as La Grande Bouffe, and others in which food is just a detail, as in The Bicycle Thief; and so many still-life paintings—all these have started me dreaming of the feasts those works planted so firmly in my mind. Still, my reach has always exceeded my grasp, and I know more tastes and textures are in store for me.

The world of food has never been as exciting as it is now, as I hope the choices for this book indicate. Mass travel and mass communication have hastened fusion, something as old as mankind but never before occurring so rapidly and on so vast a scale. That acceleration sometimes created difficulties in determining which cuisine to categorize a dish in—for example, is chakchouka Tunisian or Israeli? But people have been wandering far from home ever since they could walk, and along with military conquests and the resultant colonialism, changing methods and equipment, and simply

a hunger for variety, natural fusions were fostered long before intellectual chefs began consciously doing the same. I did my best to properly classify them all here.

So bon voyage and, especially, bon appétit. May your senses and stomach be strong and your pleasures great.

How the Book Is Organized

The geography of flavor and culinary style, rather than strict geographical borders, guided the organization of this book into some seventy cuisines. Along the way, I wrestled with issues such as where Middle Eastern food ends and North African cuisine begins. In the end, such distinctions are somewhat arbitrary, and I did my best to capture and classify the flavor and spirit of each selection. This is also true of traditional dishes that have become international favorites. For example, although we regularly enjoy Italian and Chinese foods in America (the best tirami sù I ever had was in Napa Valley) and even have Americanized versions of some of them, for the most part they have been classified with their root cuisines.

Within each cuisine, entries are in rough alphabetical order based on their most commonly used name in their country of origin. When this name is in another language, if neither the tagline that appears above the entry title nor the first line of that entry make it clear what the food is, a translation is provided.

Because there are some foods that completely transcend geography and are enjoyed the world over, there is a special designation called “Food of the World.” Entries with this stamp are peppered throughout the book. For a full list of them, see the index on page 919.

At the end of each entry is information that will help you either obtain or cook the food being described. Here is a rundown of the type of information offered:

Where: This tells you where you can find the food in question. Usually that refers to restaurants that serve the dish or the meal or brick-and-mortar shops that offer the ingredients, both in the United States and abroad. Each includes a phone number and Web address when available, and, if the restaurant or market itself is the main subject of the entry, its street address as well.

Caveat: Although I have visited many of the restaurants named, others were included after careful research and consultation with at least three reliable personal or professional sources (not consumer-based ratings on websites). Nonetheless, restaurants change quickly, as do chefs and menus; they also close without notice. The same can be said for stores and online food purveyors. For these reasons, recommendations are necessarily provisional.

A note on phone numbers: All non-U.S. and Canadian phone numbers are listed with their country codes. To call any of them, you have to add on your international access code (011 in code and the listed number. In some countries, when you are calling locally you have to dial 0 before the number (and of course the country code is not required).

Mail order: These are online merchants that offer the ingredients and dishes recommended. I have tried many of those named, and the rest have been drawn from long-standing suppliers.

Caveat: I have recommended mail order sources only where the food can be reasonably expected to arrive in good condition. To accomplish this, the shipping fees can be costly, as with anything that has to be delivered within twenty-four hours and thus requires overnight air service. This can add up to an amount more than double that of the food being sent, so check carefully before placing an order.

Further information and recipes: What you cannot find in a restaurant, you may well be able to prepare at home, hence a collection of cookbooks and websites that offer further reading and what I consider excellent recipes for a dish or a meal or interesting and suitable use of an ingredient. Some of the best of those books may be out of print but all are available at one or another of the following sources:

  • alibris.com
  • barnesandnoble.com
  • amazon.com
  • Powell’s,

    Tel 800-878-7323

    powells.com

  • Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks,

    Tel 212-989-8962

    bonnieslotnickcookbooks.com

  • Kitchen Arts & Letters,

    Tel 212-876-5550

    kitchenartsandletters.com

In cases where I point you toward a website, to avoid long and cumbersome Web addresses, I have instead frequently provided search terms. When you visit the website in question, simply locate the search bar and type in the terms there—the recipe or page I referenced should pop right up.

Tip: This includes pointers on selecting the best samples of a food and/or on storing or handling it efficiently and safely. Alternatively, a tip may simply offer an extra tidbit of useful information.

Special events: There are many festivals, celebrations, and holidays honoring particular dishes or ingredients, and food-minded travelers might want to plan to attend when a favorite is the subject. I provide the name of the festival, where it takes place and during which month, and a website for more information.

See also: Many culinary cultures include similar dishes (such as Egypt’s Kosheri and India’s Biryani, see pages 711 and 868) and if such references have not already been mentioned in the entry, they are added for perspective.

A warning about street eating: A number of street foods are included in this book and all can be enjoyed with the same precautions that I have taken for many years without ever once becoming ill. I eat only very hot meats or fish that are grilled, boiled, fried, or roasted before my very eyes, instead of any that seem to have been lying around. I never street-eat cold meats or seafood, nor any raw vegetable or fruit that cannot be peeled. And I drink only bottled water or soda that is uncapped right in front of me. In questionable situations, I avoid dairy products not taken from refrigeration, especially whipped cream or egg custard pastries or desserts. And because I am likely to eat raw shellfish in restaurants in questionable locales, I make sure that my vaccination against hepatitis A is up to date.

There is always a bit of risk involved with trying something or visiting someplace new, so use your best judgment and keep an eye out for travel advisories or other news that may affect the safety of your food or travels.

Guest

  • Mimi Sheraton, food writer. Her latest book is “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.” She tweets @mimisheraton.
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