1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die by Mimi Sheraton, book review: Pies and prejudice

This gourmet guide is hard to stomach, says Christopher Hirst

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The Independent Culture

Curiously, this is the second book to advance this somewhat morbid proposition. Anyone choosing to pursue the suggestions in both might find their consumption period unpleasantly curtailed. Mimi Sheraton, former restaurant critic of The New York Times, proves to be an assiduous and tempting maitre d'.

Among her pre-mortem proposals are aligot (the "wickedly rich, sensuously addictive" cheese and mash slurry from the Auvergne), culatello (the "real prize" for "connoisseurs of Italian cured meats"), Vacherin du Mont d'Or from Switzerland ("the apotheosis of milk"), Hangtown fry (a Californian omelette with oysters and bacon invented during the Gold Rush) and dan dan noodles ("the emblematic street food" of Sichuan).

It's a hugely informative global spread with one sorry exception: the section on British and Irish food. Though it occupies only 46 pages compared to France's 92, it's evident that Sheraton had trouble finding sufficient temptations. Along with the usual suspects (roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Welsh rarebit, steak and kidney pie), she includes bread fried in bacon grease ("surprisingly delicious") and deep-fried Mars bars.

Some of the selections from Britain and Ireland are plain baffling. When did you last suck a stick of butterscotch ("a candy so common you might be inclined to take it for granted")? And isn't soused herring more of a Baltic speciality, especially when "gently mitigated by thin slices of buttered brown bread, the whole vividly enhanced by a complement of icy gin, vodka or aquavit"?

To be fair, Sheraton gets a lot right. There's clotted cream and potted shrimps, summer pudding and langoustines, roast goose and trifle, Cheddar and mince pie. Sheraton's visit to St John restaurant In Smithfield explains the excellent inclusion of bone marrow, seed cake and Eccles cakes (which Sheraton confuses with Garibaldi biscuits when she refers to them as "squashed fly cakes").

But the omissions are startling. No crab salad, no venison, no roast lamb (better than the three versions of agneau de pré-salé included in the French section), no roast pork (preferable to the crackling-deprived Florentine equivalent), no green English asparagus, no halibut, no Egremont russet, no rhubarb pie, no custard, and, brace yourself, no pork pie. I wouldn't relish a week without a decent pork pie, never mind a lifetime. You can't help feeling that the book suffers from the traditional American prejudice against British food. It's a shame when our national cuisine is enjoying such a glorious revival. American visitors should be aware that there's more here than roast beef and mushy peas.