Print Reviews
Garlic and Sapphires
by Reichl Ruth
Penguin (2005)
Garlic and Sapphires
6 / 10
It’s hard to resist the finer things in life. To wander off the street into an immaculate sanctuary where people happily serve you, and offer your choice of the finest wines – what’s not to enjoy? It turns out that there are some things, but vicariously experiencing the height of pleasure at four-star (or even three-star) restaurants is the central thrill of Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl, former food critic at the New York Times. This memoir covers Reichl’s tenure at the Times, but with a clever twist: it concentrates on the lengths at which she labored to dine in anonymity. Garlic and Sapphires is great not just for its look at these glamorous institutions, but also for its clever subplots and thoughtful discussions of how this job affected the author’s life and identity.

Though a native New Yorker, Reichl moved from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s to take a job offer at the New York Times Upon arriving, she was surprised to realize exactly how high the stakes were in the local dining industry, with coworkers and readers already judging her and restaurateurs posting her photograph all over their premises (so she would receive the best service). Special treatment would result in unfair judgments of restaurants, but Reichl quickly found a solution to this dilemma. She contacted an old family friend, Claudia, an acting coach who helps create disguises and characters for her to use when dining. Each character has an effect on Ruth, and she takes lessons to heart after acting out each character. This is most dramatic when dines in character as her own mother. “My mother could be difficult,” she realizes, “but when she was happy she was uniquely capable of abandoning herself to the moment.” This is no profound declaration on the nature of human character, but just a brief discussion of personal identity is enough to spice up such a casually written book.

The writing style of Garlic and Sapphires is mostly relaxed, making for a fun, quick read. As it is a memoir, one pitfall is that many of the quotes feel like exaggerations (since the author has no formal interviews, notes, or primary sources to quote from). There are some wonderful, elegant passages, though, such as her subway journey to Flushing:

“Now the train whistled through the streets of Queens, turning us into voyeurs as we stared at the dioramas in the uncurtained windows… Below us the colors of the children playing ball changed as we passed through staid pub-filled Irish neighborhoods and raucous Jamaican ones where the sidewalks became a riot of violent hues and the throbbing sound of metal drums wafted up to the train. And then we were in India, and the aroma of cardamom, cumin, ginger, and turmeric was so powerful that we had to resist the urge to jump off the subway….”

As a native New Yorker, the author is nostalgic about each dining or food-shopping experience she has enjoyed, with an exceptionally detailed memory and sense of geography. The mythic nature of New York City (all of it - not just the ritzy Manhattan) hangs over Reichl and livens up her work.

One thing about this book did leave a bitter taste in my mouth: the total snobbery of the upper crust. The diners, waiters, and maitre d’s of the top NYC restaurants are total assholes, absolute tyrants. If you travel there to drop some change, they will treat you good, but most regular people, it seems, have no chance. Reichl attempts to address this problem in a column, saying she sometimes feels like an “elitist pig,” but that’s okay because there are now “fewer and fewer” snobby restaurants. She then admits in the book that this was a “cop out,” and the problem remains unresolved. In the end, Reichl leaves the Times, but mainly, it seems, for personal reasons, not because of the industry’s elitism. The author was right to point out class differences in this novel, but it brought perhaps too much reality into a book that is, otherwise, a wonderful source of escapism.
Posted by: CJ

Print Reviews (October 26th, 2005)