Feb 2007

Garlic and Sapphires – Ruth Reichl

About: As the New York Times‘s restaurant critic for most of the 1990s, Reichl had what some might consider the best job in town; among her missions were evaluating New York City’s steakhouses, deciding whether Le Cirque deserved four stars and tracking down the best place for authentic Chinese cuisine in Queens. Thankfully, the rest of us can live that life vicariously through this vivacious, fascinating memoir. The book—Reichl’s third—lifts the lid on the city’s storied restaurant culture from the democratic perspective of the everyday diner. Reichl creates wildly innovative getups, becoming Brenda, a red-haired aging hippie, to test the food at Daniel; Chloe, a blonde divorcée, to evaluate Lespinasse; and even her deceased mother, Miriam, to dine at 21. Such elaborate disguises—which include wigs, makeup, thrift store finds and even credit cards in other names—help Reichl maintain anonymity in her work, but they also do more than that. “Every restaurant is a theater,” she explains. Each one “offer[s] the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality.” Reichl’s ability to experience meals in such a dramatic way brings an infectious passion to her memoir. Reading this work—which also includes the finished reviews that appeared in the newspaper, as well as a few recipes—ensures that the next time readers sit down in a restaurant, they’ll notice things they’ve never noticed before.

My thoughts: Ruth Reichl is my new hero. She’s brilliant, hilarious, a fantastic writer, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. I picked up Garlic and Sapphires on a whim after she was quoted on a foodie website. I finished the 300+ page book in under a week because it was that good!

Reichl is not a food snob. During her tenure at the New York Times she controversially gave multiple stars to restaurants that weren’t French and/or pricey and made ethnic fare (Korean, Chinese, Japanese) approachable to the general public. I appreciated how she wrote from an outsider’s perspective about the snobbery and pretension of some well-known New York restaurants. Eateries should definitely be called out for their mistreatment of diners who aren’t clad in fur and other status symbols.

This book is much more than it initially appears to be and covers a range of pertinent issues such as family, class, and gender. While I definitely learned a thing or two about restaurants and food after reading Garlic and Sapphires, I also took away some valuable lessons about life.

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