The 35th annual Friends of the Library Book and Author Luncheon was held on a beautiful spring day at the George Washington Manor. The luncheon, which drew a full house, featured authors Mimi Sheraton and James Traub. Sheraton's latest book is an engrossing memoir, Eating My Words: An Appetite for life. Traub recently wrote The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square, a vivid history of that site.
As a memento of the milestone anniversary of the event, at each place setting was a bookmark/pen and a scroll listing each of the authors featured since the luncheon's inception in 1969. Some of the well-known writers included Margaret Mead, Meyer Levin, Anita Loos, Howard Fast, Jane Howard, William Safire, Gail Sheehy, Robert Caro, Quentin Crisp, Barbara Seaman, Ed Lowe, and Nelson DeMille. Local featured authors included Norman Garbo, Susan Isaacs, Donald Axinn, Sally Wendkos Olds, Marion McPartland, Richard D. Whittemore, and Daniel Paisner. The Book and Author Luncheon was renamed in 2000 in memory of Richard Whittemore, a founder and president of the Friends of the Library, as well as a longtime library trustee. Whittemore authored The Library Years, the Centennial Year History of the Library of Port Washington as part of the library's centennial celebration.
Amy Bass, president of the Friends of the Library, thanked Armond Saidai of the popular Northwinds coffee shop for the organization's new logo, which was featured on the handouts. In introducing Mimi Sheraton, the first woman restaurant reviewer at the New York Times, Bass referred to her own well-worn copy of Sheraton's cookbook, From My Mother's Kitchen, which she said inevitably falls open to the potato pancakes recipe. Bass added, Úquot;We are overjoyed to have her here.Úquot;
Sheraton said that throughout the memoir she endeavored to answer the questions that she has been asked most frequently - aside from Úquot;what's the best restaurant?Úquot; (The latter question was one of the first asked during the question-and-answer period.
Úquot;One of the questions I am most often asked,Úquot; Sheraton said, is, Úquot;How did you get started?Úquot; She said, Úquot;I grew up in a very food-minded family. It was very important to be a good cook. My mother judged a woman by her ability to make chicken soup.Úquot; In addition, Sheraton's father was in the food business in the Washington Market. She said, Úquot;He would come home talking about food from different places. I began to learn distinctions.Úquot; She commented, Úquot;Once you begin looking for the best in everything you're sunk.Úquot; She added that this interest in food has been passed on to her son.
Sheraton's wonderful sense of humor came, at least in part, from her mother. As a young woman she announced, Úquot;I am going to have a big job; I just don't know what it will be.Úquot; Her mother responded, Úquot;Maybe you'll wash elephants.Úquot; As is true for many of us, Sheraton's career was a chain of serendipitous events; she cautioned that her story should not be considered instructions on Úquot;how to become a restaurant reviewer for a major publication.Úquot; After graduating from New York University, she wrote copy for an ad agency. Her next job was as a furniture copywriter at Good Housekeeping magazine, then to Seventeen, where she did food in addition to home furnishings, ultimately becoming their food editor. She said, Úquot;Food was always a hobby with me. I loved to cook.Úquot;
In 1975, Sheraton went to the New York Times as their restaurant critic. Again, Mom weighed in on the issue. Said Sheraton, Úquot;She always took the side of the restaurant. In a typical telephone call, Mom would say, Úquot;I know what you are. You are a maven of dreck'. What you do is really not so nice. A man buys a restaurant, decorates it, invests a lot of money, he's doing fine until in walks 'big mouth.' If people want to eat in a terrible restaurant, what is it your business?Úquot;
Sheraton pointed out that even a job like restaurant critic, which appears to be glamorous, and sometimes is, has its moments of drudgery. She said that the Times' policy was to visit a restaurant at least three times, but if it was going to be a bad review, especially of a popular and/or pricey restaurant, she sometimes went six or eight times. Úquot;By the fifth time you go to a terrible restaurant,Úquot; she said, Úquot;this is drudgery.Úquot;
Sheraton said that a restaurant critic needs two traits: (1) to know about food with a good memory for tastes; and (2) to write well enough so that people want to read it. She added, Úquot;It is essential to have a mate who shares your passion.Úquot; Sheraton summed up by saying, Úquot;It has been a marvelous profession. As you travel, if you get people talking about food, they open up and trust you. I have used this professionally in interviewing people.Úquot;
In the course of her long and prolific career, Sheraton has written for dozens of major periodicals and has published numerous books. In addition to the ones already mentioned, some of her books include Visions of Sugar Plums, Mimi Sheraton's New York Times Guide to New Restaurants, Mimi Sheraton's Favorite New York Restaurants, The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup: Recipes and Lore to Comfort Body and Soul, 1995, Food Markets of the World, and The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World. Her writings reflect her love of travel as well as her enthusiasm for food.
In discussing the history of Times Square, James Traub chose to highlight the period from about 1910 to 1920. He said that we tend to think of the Úquot;new ageÚquot; as beginning in the 20s, the era of jazz, the Úquot;flappers,Úquot; speakeasies, and the rest. Úquot;In fact,Úquot; he said, Úquot;I discovered in researching the books that it was an earlier period that was seminal.Úquot; He added, Úquot;Times Square really began in 1904.Úquot; The subway, he said, is what made Times Square a tremendous public center. Traub said, Úquot;While there had been an entertainment center, there had never been anything like Times Square. It tended to break down the barriers [among the social classes.]Úquot;
Traub described the supper clubs of the Times Square of that period, where cabaret was performed, and where the performers mixed with the patrons. Úquot;The diners were part of the performance,Úquot; he said, Úquot;and the best seats were near the stage.Úquot; Business people, socialites, journalists, and others mingled with the world of the entertainers. Úquot;How thrilling it must have been at that time,Úquot; he commented. Úquot;It became quite respectable,Úquot; he said, Úquot;although the preachers railed against it.Úquot; He added that dancing in couples was new, and a little scandalous. Comparing this era with the following decade, Traub said, Úquot;In the midst of the frivolity in the twenties, there was a deeper moment because of the world war. In this decade, it was sheer frivolity - frothy and free. Dance lessons were everywhere.Úquot;
Traub said that Times Square was a frontier for social values up until the moment in the 1980s when the pornographers were driven out. He commented, Úquot;All the 'naughty' stuff is gone. Times Square now polices itself. In response to a later question, Traub pointed out that not all New Yorkers share the opinion that the transformation of Times Square has been for the better. Úquot;A lot of people don't like it,Úquot; he said. Úquot;They feel that Times Square no longer belongs to them - they believe it has become the property of the global corporations, the real estate developers. They do not regard it as the center of their city, but as a place where the tourists go.Úquot;
James Traub is well known to many of us as the talented and thoughtful writer for New York Times Magazine. His other books are City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College and Too Good to Be True: The Outlandish Story of Wedtech.
Both authors remained after the formal presentation for book signing and informal conversation..