For 28 years Brooklyn-born Mimi Sheraton has written about food, the last seven and a half—when she often managed two dinners a night, plus three or four lunches a week—as restaurant critic for the New York Times (the Times picked up the $75,000 annual tab for restaurants and cabs). In 1980 a chubby, 5’5″ Mimi took a five-month leave to lose weight. She dropped from 200 pounds to 165 and was still shedding when she returned to her daily routine of eating out.
Last month Mimi, 57, again left the Times, this time for good. She plans to write books (there’s one in the works with comedian Alan King) and to travel and diet, for the pounds, alas, have crept back. A pro who happily forks through meals, making swift, encyclopedic judgments, Sheraton vows to continue eating and writing, only several sizes slimmer. Before beginning a 1,000-calorie-a-day diet, she lunched in Manhattan with PEOPLE’S Peggy Brawley. Over chicken tandoori (no stars) and bhindi masala (two stars), she discussed her struggle against what every true nosher must ultimately confront: obesity.
I’ll always be someone who is a little fat, but right now I’m too fat. I was 190 pounds when I left the Times. I’d like to lose 45 pounds. At 145, I’d be overweight but happy. I’m not mean? to be skinny. It’s not even my self-image. I grew up at a time when the ideal woman was rounded and buxom, like Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Ann Sheridan. It was an image that attracted men. A young man I know says that being in bed with some women today is like being in bed with a bicycle.
The day in the spring of 1980 when I hit 200 pounds was a terrible moment. It was a day I really don’t count as part of my life. That’s when I took a leave and started dieting. For 28 years I’ve been married to a man who is stupendous about eating with me—and stupendous about not eating with me. For 24 hours we had nothing to eat. We went to the movies all day long. At the fourth—The Empire Strikes Back—someone was cooking hot dogs in the lobby. The smell was unbearable, and we finally had to leave without seeing the end.
Some people think it’s glamorous to be a food writer. I don’t want to be a food writer, I want to eat. I love to eat, I need to eat. The good writers began by loving to eat. You get paid for doing what you like to do most.
If your priority is being thin, then you’ll never be a good reviewer. It’s hard to do a job and taste each bite if you are on a diet. The conflict is so great you could get an ulcer. I really want to taste everything. The reader can tell if you haven’t. You don’t have to eat like a mad fool, but there should be a certain zest. You have to love what you’re critiquing. I’m crazy about restaurants: the suspense, the drama, the people-watching. It’s like theater. I like to see how a dish will turn out.
There’s a double message coming out in our society. Food is in and it’s chic and you have to know about sauces made of reduced cream and foie gras and about roast suckling pig at Texarkana, but yet you can never be too thin. Your bones have to stick out. How do you reconcile those images? I invite more men to lunch, since all women want is lettuce and poached fish.
Writing for the Times was a dream come true, and it was a tough decision to leave. It’s like breaking up with a man you’re madly in love with but you know there’s going to be trouble down the line. Before I announced my decision I had raw nerves, cold hands, butterflies, but I felt marvelous two days later.
I never splurged when I was working. I was careful ordering wine and I didn’t taste caviar unless it was unusual, but I had a hard time leaving anything on my plate. If something was good enough, I ate the whole thing. Not desserts, though. I would have two bites of chocolate cake and that was it. Sometimes I’d say, “This week I’ll watch it,” and I’d have fish, no bread and butter or wine. That was good for two or three pounds. But I couldn’t go on a diet when I was reviewing.
For two years after I lost 35 pounds, every time I gained two or three I’d take it off. But in the third year I fell off the wagon. In 1982 we ate dinner home five times: Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day and Easter. Although now we’ll go out, and pay for it, we’ll spend more time at home. It will be boring, but not for long. I have two kitchens, one with a six-burner Garland stove that I never use. It’s like being in a deserted mining town in Colorado. I expect a tumbleweed to come tumbling down.
Fortunately I have no cholesterol problem, and at my last annual physical my blood pressure was 99/66. My doctor is not concerned about my health. He approves of my diet, since it doesn’t sound crazy. I was going to call my diet Sam, since diets need names these days. But Sam didn’t sound quite right, so I’m calling it the Greenwich Village diet because I live in the Village and I’ve decided to fight this weight thing out on my own ground. I say, “I’m a mature, reasonable adult and I can do this for a while.” The thought of paying $2,300 a week at a reducing spa not to be fed or to have somebody give you vegetable juice offends me. I would hate to be in a community of people doing exercises and having massages. It’s self-indulgent. And I don’t like some diets, like Weight Watchers, that keep you busy with food all day. I won’t stand in the kitchen for hours making fake hollandaise sauce. I’m very happy with a can of crabmeat.
I will eat boiled eggs, cottage cheese, the white meat of chicken, fish, veal and a lot of vegetables. For flavor I’ll use fresh herbs and lemon juice, lots of lemons—they are the dieter’s best friend—but I’ll eat few fruits, only grapefruit and melons. Never grapes. They’re loaded with sugar and you can eat so many. I think the current belief that carbohydrates are good for you is baloney. I really believe the whole thing is calories. You can have 1,000 calories of strawberry shortcake a day or 1,000 calories of lettuce, but it’s still 1,000 calories. Jogging 10 miles might be good for you, but it’s nothing compared with cutting calories.
I hate exercise. After I lose 15 or 20 pounds, I will exercise. But why exercise a lot of fat if I’m going to get rid of it? I like to swim, about 30 laps in an Olympic-size pool, and I love to walk, although it’s unfortunate that in every neighborhood I know there is something delicious to eat.
The depressing thing about a diet is when you don’t lose weight, or gain a pound, or reach a plateau. On my first diet I found that very strong seasonings kept me feeling hungry longer. I felt my mouth working. You develop mouth hunger, your mouth begins to want to taste something. So in the middle of the afternoon I brush my teeth and rinse my mouth with undiluted Listerine, and I find I lose my appetite for an hour. Iced black coffee and Tab are good, too, and at intervals during the day and before bed I have four ounces of skim milk.
I never wear pants—I’m just too big—and I think tent dresses are frumpy and dowdy. In a loose dress you think no one knows you are fat and that’s silly, because of course you are. And it’s a waste of time going shopping. Anything above a size 10 or 12 is all polyester and the colors are milk-chocolate brown and grape-lollipop purple with contrasting piping. A seamstress comes to my house and copies fashions that I like, but I can always buy Calvin Klein or Geoffrey Beene blouses. I’m smaller on top—my shoulders never change—and I can wear an Olga 38 bra. For a slip, and I’m someone who still wears slips, I have to go to Lane Bryant or some other fat ladies’ store, but I carry a Lord & Taylor or Bergdorf bag to put it in.
After I’m down to 150 pounds a fillet of Mimi will emerge and I’ll take a good look. If I’m beginning to sag—and at my age I could sag a lot—I’ll see if I really want to be much thinner. A full face is a young face, and it tends to make the skin look younger. At 125, my whole face would cave in and I’d need a face-lift. There’d be no end to this. At size 8, 1 would probably be dead.