By Leo Melamed

Mimi Sheraton
Yivo Award Ceremony
February 28, 2006 - New York, NY

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You take about 100 pounds of high-gluten flour, add 7 gallons of ice water, 2 pounds of salt, and about 1 pound of yeast. You combine the ingredients in a huge container, allow it to rise for two or three hours, and place the result on a highly flouredboard....

Welcome! You have just entered the magical realm of Mimi Sheraton, a mysterious culinary world reserved for a gifted few.

....Then you divide the concoction into about nine-6 pound mounds which you knead by hand. With an experienced eye you shape each mound into roughly thirty smaller balls—each weighing about three ounces and four inches in diameter....

You are hearing words written during an engrossing life’s journey, by someone who is as passionate about her profession as she is for meticulous research and veracity. Someone, who once collected 104 corned beef and pastrami sandwiches in New York to see which deli had the best meat.

....After rising for an hour, each smaller formation is lightly rolled and gently flattened onto a board. Then you shape each round by placing both thumbs on top of the center with the index and middle fingers underneath, making sure the center of the compound stays depressed while the rim remains high....

You are listening to one of the most renowned food connoisseurs and restaurant critics in the country. It is the voice of someone whose mastery as a recorder of recipes is matched only by her expertise as a writer and journalist. Someone, who went around the world several times, peering into kitchens and restaurants, many of whom found their way into her guide to 60 of the World’s Great Cities.

....Now you take each creation and quickly smear a topping of chopped onions and poppy seeds into their well and on their rims. Finally, you place the productions onto big wooden peels and slide them onto the shelves of a coal-and-wood-fired oven. Soon you will have eighty dozen of a gastronomical wonder known as the Bialystoker kuchen.

Of course, back in Bialystok as a seven year old, when I was actually eating an authentic Bialystoker kuchen with a piece of herring prepared at the hand of my babba, I knew nothing of what Mimi would some day write about the Bialystoker kuchen. Indeed, little did I know when Mimi Sheraton interviewed me in Chicago some years back, that she was about to include me in her book “The Bialy Eaters,” which traced the origin of the Bialystoker kuchen and includes the history of some of the people who were fortunate enough to taste the real McCoy back in Bialystok, when Bialystok was still a great Jewish city in Poland where I was born.

Icchok Shamir, the former Prime Minister of Israel was a Bialystoker; so was Dr. Ludwik L. Zamenhof, the world-famous inventor of the international language Esperanto. Dr. Albert B. Sabin who developed the oral equivalent for the Salk vaccine was also a Bialystoker. The renowned Parisian, international lawyer Samual Pisar, who spent his adolescence in Auschwitz, was a Bialystoker. And it should be remembered that, Bialystok thrived as the center of the Jewish labor movement, the Bund. Both my parents, Ycchok and Feigl Melamdovich were ardent Bialystoker Bundistin.

In the book Mimi says the New York bialy—a distant cousin of the bagel but without the hole in the center—is itself a descendent of the Bialystoker kuchen—“a baked roll about nine inches in diameter with a perimeter of raised dough, and a flat, crisp, disklike center impressed with mohn and shreds of roasted onions.” Bialystoker Jews loved the kuchen and were known as “Bialystoker kuchen fressers.” And what every Bialystoker, including myself, can testify, is that the Bialystoker Kuchen was the original McCoy. Alas, there no longer are any Bialystoker Kuchens nor, for that matter, any Jewish Bialystoker bakers.

Born to Beatrice Breit and Joseph Solomon, Mimi stems from a highly orthodox Jewish family with a grandfather who was a rabbi. But food was in the family DNA. The dominant gene. Her grandmother, Mrs. Breit, would order food from the grocer, butcher, or fishmonger with meticulous precision—naming the exact color, texture, or even degrees of fat the item must have. The slightest deviation from the standard demanded was summarily rejected. Mimi’s father, a fruit merchant, knew every detail about fruit crops everywhere in the country, down to which oranges were more flavorful, at which time of the year, which brand of grapefruit juicier, and which apples pulpy, or tangy. According to Mimi, her mother never left the kitchen. It was with her mother that in 1979 Mimi published her first collection of recipes, “From My Mother’s Kitchen.” Indeed, her mother became Mimi’s unrelenting critic—questioning not only Mimi’s aesthetic judgments but her morals and sanity as well. Once, after Mimi reported on mussels, snails and eels—food her mother regarded as unfit for all humans she called Mimi a connoisseur of crap! More meaningful in Yiddish: “A maven of dreck!” Of course her mother was also Mimi’s greatest fan and fiercest defender.

By her own admission, Mimi was a restaurant junkie. In fact, she felt guilty for accepting money to do her dream job. From childhood, she was carried away by the romantic notions of strangers gathering on the same premises, ostensibly to satisfy the biological necessity for food, but really—in Mimi’s words—“to socialize with family or friends, to start a romance or end one, to hire and fire, be hired or fired, to wheel and deal, and always look good and happy to be alive, even if your world had just fallen apart.”

To say that Mimi is a supreme expert of food fails to do justice to the fact she was steeped in every aspect of the genre, its creation, its presentation, its origin and its philosophy—even the ideas, humor and beliefs behind the myriad food symbolisms in both superstition, religion and folklore, down to the social attitudes that foster the rules of eating. She would taste anything—well, almost: She once drew the line in Hong Kong when the special treat was to be monkey brains served as a dip in the chopped-open head still attached to the live animal.

Having completed courses at the Le Cordon Bleu, Mimi has tasted and reviewed the entire gamut of gastronomical wonders from live lobster sashimi to lady-fingers at a French patisserie. Her career, by the way, began on Coney Island, where she and her girlfriends held an exercise in comparative tasting, the relative merits of Nathan’s hot dogs against Feldman’s—the man who actually invented America’s famous contribution to the gastronomical world. Nathan’s won, hands down.

By the way, Mimi’s praise of those lady-fingers, accounted for one-third of all sales at the restaurant for the next five years. Yes, a favorable review from Mimi would practically guarantee a restaurant’s success. But she was tough to please. Indeed, Mimi’s most defining trait was her unscrupulous honesty. Knowing that restaurant owners make special preparations if they know a food critic is coming, Mimi would go through pain to make her visits a surprise—even to the point of using pseudonyms and disguises, down to fake wigs—just like in James Bond movies.

Point in fact, Mimi’s reviews were often merciless. She once spoke of one of New York’s finest French restaurants as serving, “over-the-hill shellfish, rubber quenelles, acrid duck pate,’ and pastry with the texture of Uneeda biscuits.” Consequently she was often the target of hundreds of irate letters to editors, costly full page advertisements by chefs and restaurant owners protesting her negative review, and even the defendant in a couple of juicy lawsuits.

Her final argument occurred at the Times with its famed General Manager, Abe Rosenthal. It was about her review of Alfredo’s, a pricy Italian restaurant and Rosenthal’s, favorite. Although it had once been good enough to get 2 stars from Mimi, in her opinion it had become dreary and mediocre. Her latest review changed the rating to no stars. Rosenthal demanded Mimi compromise with at least one star or he wouldn’t print her review. Mimi quit. What a tough cookie!

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