Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Garlic and Sapphires Will Make You Yearn for More Ruth Reichl (And for Some of the Food She's Eating)

I had never heard of Ruth Reichl before I found a copy of her book, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, on the shelves at McKay's Used Books several months ago. Although she may not love hearing that, she should love this: I will be finding and reading every last one of her books, no matter their subjects. If you like to read about food, Reichl is the author for you.

Garlic and Sapphires is the story of Reichl's time as a food critic for the New York Times, from their wooing her away from the Los Angeles Times to her last reviews there. On a plane ride to New York City from L.A., months before she was scheduled to begin at the NY Times, a NYC waitress "makes" her. Restaurants all over New York have her photograph posted in their kitchens, the waitress tells an astonished Reichl. At this point Reichl, dubious about the move to begin with, begins to fully understand just how different her life is about to become.

In order to appropriately critique restaurants across the city, Reichl develops a series of disguises meant to hide her identity from waitstaff and chefs alike. Because "the steaks get bigger, the food comes faster, and the seats become more comfortable" (312) when Reichl is recognized, she decides going incognito to dine is the only avenue for genuine restaurant reviews. She creates Brenda, a loud and boisterous redhead, and Chloe, a blonde fashion plate, among others, and these alternate personalities dine all over the city undetected.

With their help, Reichl is able to accurately give her opinion on everything from New York's finest steakhouses to the best little off-the-beaten-path Asian noodle houses and sushi bars. Although food is a star in this foodie memoir, with reviews from Reichl's NY Times column and recipes included, these rich descriptions are not what makes Garlic and Sapphires such an engrossing read. That honor goes to Reichl herself, whose personality fairly shines across the page.

Reichl is extraordinarily likeable and honest in Garlic and Sapphires, as she pens her struggle with her own occupation and the difficulties it sometimes presents to her friends and family. Although everyone loves a good meal (especially a free one, which Reichl often provides for her dining companions), her friends, husband, and son sometimes question Reichl's ability to tiptoe the line between food critic and food snob.

After one dinner at Windows on the World (the restaurant that resided in the North Tower of the World Trade Center), Reichl's husband tells her:
I couldn't stay and watch what you were doing. I hate it when you pretend to be that person. . . . The Restaurant Critic of the New York Times. The Princess of New York. Ms.-I-know-I-am-right-about-food-and-don't-argue-with-me. . . . You were the person you used to make fun of. . . . You really enjoy food, and you're able to translate that pleasure for others. . . . When you got into this it was almost a spiritual thing with you. You love to eat, you love to write, you love the generosity of cooks and what happens around the table when a great meal is served. Nothing that went on last night had anything to do with that. (255-256)

Reichl continues to serve as a food critic long after that, striving to regain her long-ago goal of connecting other people with food. She does so in a myriad of ways, stringing readers along for the fabulous ride. Whether it is a dinner out with her son, a lunch date with her NY Times friend Carol, or a food tour of Brooklyn with the "ultimate connoisseur of New York food" (273) Ed Levine, Reichl describes her gastromonical experiences with a talent second to none. The reader can fairly taste the dishes Reichl indulges in.

Ruth Reichl is the author of three other memoirs, several cookbooks, and has edited or introduced a dozen or so other food-related titles. Previous to her career at the NY Times, Reichl also served for many years as both the food critic and food editor at the LA Times. She then worked as an editor for Gourmet magazine. She has hosted Food Network specials and appeared as a radio host for a live cooking show on NYC radio channel WNYC. She began her venture into food as a career in the 1970s when she opened the collective restaurant The Swallows in Berkeley, California.

You can learn more about Reichl on her website or by reading her online journal, which features everything from recipes to restaurant recommendations to thoughts on various food topics. You can also follow her on Twitter or TypePad.

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