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Wrong Train, Right Time ([personal profile] wrongtrainrighttime) wrote2017-02-26 04:52 pm

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Reichl, Ruth. Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. Penguin Books, 2005. Finished 2/22/2017.

Garlic and Sapphires is a memoir of Ruth Reichl's time as The New York Times restaurant critic. It's also a memoir of how she decided to leave the restaurant critic business. It's also a meditation on food, restaurant culture, and how a person contains multitudes.

Interested, yet?

When she started at NYT, Reichl was already a prominent figure at The Los Angeles Times, and restaurants made a point of learning everything they could about her. As a powerful critic, Reichl and her dining companions naturally received far better service than the average patron, or even the obviously out of place patron at the high-powered restaurants she reviewed. So to get around the bias induced by her own Fame, Reichl would go out in a range of disguises. Not just disguises, but personae. One of the things I really loved about this book was reading about how donning new clothes, a new wig, new jewelry and make-up, changed how she acted. How each new persona drew out a different part of her -- and a different reaction from the world around her. This is not Reichl's first memoir (a fact I didn't know until I looked up her other writing) and she has a firm grasp on how to look at, decode, and convey her experiences in a way that's both genuine and narratively interesting.

Since this book is primarily about Reichl's time as the NYT restaurant critic, the food naturally takes center stage. And Reichl's food writing is just phenomenal, lush and sensuous, evoking not just taste but sight and smell too. It's easy to see why the NYT wanted her to be their restaurant critic so badly. Scattered throughout the chapters are reprints of her reviews, and these are also a delight to read even though the applicable restaurants are probably long gone, or long changed. Reichl's mission was to write reviews, not for the wealthy few who could actually afford to eat these restaurants, but for those who couldn't. So it makes sense that her reviews endure long after the restaurants themselves, because each one was always meant to encode a foodie experience for posterity, not sell a place's food. Her love of food shines through each and every one.

Along side the food itself are Reichl's background observations of how the food scene itself was changing during her tenure at NYT, which covered most of the nineties. I don't know enough about food history to comment on these, but the occasional notes she drops form an interesting backdrop to what's ultimately the story of her personal journey out of the restaurant critic business.

I want to read more of Reichl's food writing. As someone who has a far less passionate relationship to food, Reichl's loving and sensuous relationship to what she eat is more than a little foreign -- a window to a world that I haven't yet touched. But it's a beautiful world, and I want to read more about it.

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