Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
Nov 29, 2012
I do, however, love, love, love food. So if I could list "tasting and savoring" or "reading a recipe and dreaming of eating it" or "watching with fixed fascination practically any show on Food Network" on my list of hobbies, then that would probably be a more honest indication of my relationship with food.
So did I love Garlic and Sapphires? Yes, I loved it.
Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic for the New York Times from 1993 to 1999. A few months before beginning the job, she was on a flight and was shocked to discover that New York's best restaurants were preparing for her; they knew what she looked like and everything, from professional to personal, about her. She knew there was no way she could possibly write honest reviews if she was always getting the red carpet treatment, so she set out to create a vast array of disguises for herself--everything from a dumpy old lady to a hot platinum blonde. She was wildly successful and learned a whole lot about herself in the process.
This book was fun and interesting in so many different dimensions:
First, of course, the food dimension. I have never read anyone who can write about food the way Ruth Reichl does. It is an experience in and of itself. For example: "I tasted the linguine, fragile ribbons as delicate as butterfly wings with curls of white truffle skittering between them." Yum. My mouth watered through the whole book. Even things like sea urchins or squid ink that would almost certainly hold no appeal to me in real life sounded tantalizing. All of the reviews really made me want to go to an expensive, well-known restaurant in New York City someday (although we would stick out like the cheapskates we are and consequently would get the worst service, I'm sure). As it was, Mike and I did go out to eat while I was in the middle of this book (a rare occurrence for us, and by our standards, it was not a dumpy restaurant), and I felt like I was enjoying the meal on a whole new level simply because I was paying attention to every detail and wishing I could dissect the food just like Ruth.
In between the restaurant reviews were sprinkled Ruth's own favorite recipes. I enjoyed these because they demonstrated Ruth's love of food in a whole different way. I tried "Nicky's Vanilla Cake" (hey, I didn't say I don't like to cook/bake--trying out a new recipe can be quite fun), and it was really spongy and yummy. Even Mike, who really doesn't like cake all that much, can't stop talking about it.
Second, there was the disguises dimension. In the course of the book, she talks about six of the different women she became over the six years she was at the New York Times. These disguises were more than a wig and makeup. She actually took on a completely different persona with each one. But what I found absolutely fascinating was the way she could see a tiny bit of herself reflected in each character. For example, "Brenda" was a flamboyant and friendly and very fun redhead. After going out as Brenda with her family, her son, Nicky, said, "I like eating with Brenda. She talks to people. Being with her is fun!" Ruth felt a little bit bad about this, but then her husband reassured her, "[Brenda] is really you. She's just you in a particularly good mood." Some of her other characters, Emily in particular, brought out her worst qualities. (And Chloe, the blond bombshell, made me the most uncomfortable, just because I could see how easily pretending to be someone you're not could lead to dangerous relationships). I loved the contrast between what she said when she was Brenda ("Brenda was my best self, the person I've always wanted to be. She was generous and funny, optimistic and smart. She was kind.") and when she was Emily ("It was extremely unpleasant to find how easily I had been able to summon this mean, petty person who was waiting inside me."). It really gave me a lot to think about--that we each have a whole mix of attributes inside us, but it really is a choice which ones we let shine through.
Finally, there was the "personal journey" dimension. When the story began, Ruth was at the height of her career. Being the restaurant critic of the New York Times? Can you climb any higher than that? But the longer she spent tasting exotic and gourmet dishes, the more she longed to be at home preparing her own food for her own family. She realized she wanted the added experience that being intimate with her own food would bring her. She also realized that spending a good deal of her time as someone else was taking its toll. She said, "I saw that when I became Emily I had played with fire." Instead of spending her life pretending to be someone else, she wanted to work on becoming the best self she could possibly be.
My one criticism of the book is that, as so often seems to happen with memoirs, many of the events, names, and dates just didn't match up for me.There was too much jumping around for me to make a cohesive line in my mind. I don't know if I just wasn't following it correctly, but often she would talk about something new, and I would think she had already mentioned it, or vice versa, or she would mention people I didn't remember--things like that. It definitely could have been due to reader error though.
I listened to part of the book, and the narrator, Bernadette Dunne, was quite good. Even though it is nonfiction, Ruth describes so many different people (both real and created), and Bernadette Dunne was able to bring all of them to life.
I did think it was funny that while I was reading, I kept thinking, This would be such a fun job, but then I realized I could never do it since I don't drink alcohol. I had no idea how big a role alcohol plays in the melding and highlighting of different flavors. Although, Mike was quick to point out that he thinks root beer is a perfect complement to pizza, so he could totally see how wine would do the same thing. (Yes, we really are that naive.)
And so the book ends with Ruth leaving the New York Times in pursuit of some other dreams and goals. I thought it was a perfect ending and really gave this memoir a lot more depth than I was expecting. I actually read this for my book club this month, and it made for a really wonderful discussion. Mike also read it and liked it almost as much as I did. It really is so much more than a food book.
Note of caution: There is a little bit of language, including one scene with an F-word.