Review: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
by Ruth Reichl
New York: Penguin Books, 2005
ISBN 1-59420-031-9
$15

Review by Jacquelyn Thayer

Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise is a humorous and enlightening look at the job of the restaurant critic, or, more accurately, the job of the highest-profile restaurant critic in America.

Reichl was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times for nine years before accepting the position of restaurant critic for the New York Times in 1993. During an encounter with a waitress on a flight to New York, Reichl learns that the city’s finest restaurants have her picture pinned up in order to alert the staff to her illustrious presence. Fearing special treatment from the restaurants – which could produce an inaccurate review – Reichl decides to devise a series of elaborate disguises for herself. The book is a collection of anecdotes about her experiences as a critic and, in many cases, as another person.

Reichl’s stories are often both funny and thought-provoking. One illuminating moment about the restaurant world comes with her comparison of two visits to Le Cirque, one of New York’s most celebrated and expensive restaurants, one in which she dined as herself and the other in which she posed as a nondescript, Midwestern woman named Molly. While Ruth received the best treatment possible, even being seated while the King of Spain must wait for a table, Molly is seated at the bar, despite having a reservation, is refused a wine list, and is treated badly by the busboy. Reichl experiences several moments of internal conflict over this: “I felt torn between Ruth and Molly. The former was gleeful; this terrible treatment was going to make very good copy. But Molly was wondering why anyone would subject herself to this.”

Reichl also learns much about herself in this process. She becomes her late mother, Miriam, for two meals.

The first is a dinner at 21, where she takes on Miriam’s habit of causing trouble for the staff. “Soup was never hot enough, meat was always too well done, salads were overdressed or underdressed or served at the wrong temperature. She sent everything back.”

She then enjoys lunch at the Four Seasons, where she has a revelation about her own attitude towards fine meals. “My mother could be difficult, but when she was happy she was uniquely capable of abandoning herself to the moment. By becoming her I had shed the critic, abandoned the appraiser who sat at a distance, weighing each bite, measuring each dish.”

Reichl cleverly adds variety to her narrative by including in each chapter her review of the restaurant being discussed and a recipe that relates to the story in some way. Occasionally it is an adaptation of an item served at the restaurant, such as Risotto Primavera from Le Cirque, and at other times it is tied to some personal experience, such as Moules Marinières, a mussels dish that her mother “did really well.” One collection of recipes, intriguingly, is “A Frugal Repast for Betty,” one of Reichl’s more nondescript characters.

We are made privy to the inner workings of the New York Times. Reichl battles with editors, chairmen, publishers, and the critic she replaced over her ratings system – too few stars given to New York’s elite establishments – and her fondness for ethnic cuisine.

In addition to its concern with the dining world, the book traces Reichl’s life during her first years at the Times. She discusses the peculiarities of going out with her husband and young son while dressed as a redhead named Brenda – and realizing that when she was, she was “my best self, the person I always wanted to be.”

Reichl experiences professional dissatisfaction and personal tragedy over the course of the narrative, but her story comes almost full circle at its conclusion. Garlic and Sapphires provides readers with fascinating glimpses into the mindset of the critic and true food lover, while also allowing us an opportunity to meet Reichl as a person – a wife, mother, daughter, and friend.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 22, 2006

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