Mimi Sheraton has been a food writer for over 50 years. She has written more than a dozen books, including the 2004 memoir Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life. For “Ultimate Pho,” a feature story in Smithsonian’s March issue, Sheraton scoured Hanoi, Vietnam, for its best pho. I recently caught up with her to hear about her experience.
In the story, you say, “food searches have long been among your most enduring obsessions.” Why is that?
They have taken me to places I would probably have never gone otherwise, and not only to cities but to corners of cities. The other thing I value are the friendships I’ve made. I have found time and again, when you can get a stranger, whether you are sitting next to him or her in an airplane or actually interviewing them, when you can get them to talk about food, especially the food they grew up with, they have a rather relaxed and friendly feeling toward you and will talk about things on a level that they would not before. I used to do food profiles for the New York Times with people like John Updike and Alan King and all kinds of people who talked about things they never would have talked about of themselves because they thought the subject was food. The other thing is you really do trip over the history and social customs of a place when you investigate the food. The influence of France in the Vietnamese culture is very apparent, I think, in this story, from pain de mie and pot au feu, and the sense of fashion perhaps.
How did this food search compare to others?
Well, they are all interesting. I think the element that made this so different was being with so many of the musicians. It was sort of a double story. It was about them and their likes, and it was about the soup. Tracking these things down is always interesting because of the collateral experiences—the place, the look of the buildings, the people you see, the little café where you sat and had a cup of espresso and something happened. This is all lagniappe, as they say in Louisiana.
Is there a good example of the lengths you went to for a bowl of pho, like finding a street vendor in a back alley that had been talked about or something?
Here we were eating in these sloppy places, with our hands, seated on pails. I would say that the one that turned out to be the most bizarre adventure was the last one that the Japanese conductor of the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra took me to, where they had udder and penis. You don’t see that every day.
How do you like your pho?
Boiling hot, that’s one thing. I guess I like it the way it is supposed to be, a very strong, beefy broth with a lot of the aromatic additions of the shallots and the ginger, and very soft, silky noodles. I like to add the greens gradually, not all at once, which some of them do, because they go limp and tangle up with your chopsticks. I also like hot sauce in it. I do like the pho ga with an egg yolk in it. That is optional.
Vietnamese food is so popular in the States right now—pho, and regular dishes. It’s very decorative—the colors of the food, the texture, the freshness of the green garnishes, the lemon grass, the cilantro, the hot chilies. And it’s not a heavy cuisine. It has a very modern feel, not totally unfamiliar because there are intimations of the Chinese and the Thai in their food, which geographically is understandable. They’re between the two countries. Of course, it’s not as large a cuisine as the Thai or Chinese. But it’s very special. It just seems to appeal to the modern palette.
What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
I have to say the highlight of the trip was the concert, when our New York Philharmonic played the Vietnamese national anthem followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I mean, no one of a generation who lived through Vietnam and what it meant all around could have anything but goose bumps on hearing these two anthems played together and Vietnamese and Americans standing together respectfully for both. I mean, chills up and down the spine, I think for everyone in the room. People were transfixed. I think everyone got the import of the moment.
How was Alan Gilbert for a food search companion?
Great fun, very adventurous, extremely good-natured, and he loves to eat. So that made him very good company. We have plans to go out and look for more pho together in New York when he has time between concerts. We said let’s go search for pho here and see how it stands up. So maybe we have to write, “to be continued.”