Denise's Reviews > Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
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Feb 08, 08

bookshelves: firstread, memoir
Read in February, 2008

Reichl served as the New York Times food critic from 1993 to 1999, and this book is about her years as "The New York Times Food Critic" -- but it's also about her struggle to evade the identity of The New York Times Food Critic (tm) and get people an honest, egalitarian review of what, exactly, they're going to get out of their meal.

I vaguely remember bits and pieces of the controversy when Reichl took over the reins, but this book really blew the whole thing open. The problems she was facing were twofold: one, she wanted to cover a wider range of food than the previous "snooty French" coverage the NYT had tended to, thus necessitating not only developing a way to consistently evaluate cross-food-ethnicity, but also a way to convince Yr Av'g Noo Yawka that these cuisines were worthy of attention -- but more importantly, two, it was impossible to evaluate what kind of dining experience a "normal" person would have in the cut-throat, status-based New York City restaurant scene.

Reichl's solution -- create alternate 'selves', complete with their own personalities and quirks, and take them out to a meal (she deliberately built her personae to not encode for the status that would guarantee her a world-class experience) -- is simple and elegant, and the book itself is an engaging interaction with the idea of national privilege and identity as it plays out on restuarant tables. Her examples are well-chosen, and she writes beautifully: clear, direct, and entertaining. She also prints recipes and reprints several of the colums that resulted from the anecdotes she relates in the book, which serve as excellent bonus material.

But where the book shines is what it makes you think about. Because as Sarah (who read it first) came across a reference to a particular dollar amount for a meal, she turned to me, read that bit out loud, and said, "Is there something wrong with me that I don't think this is particularly exorbitant for a meal like that?" And I answered no -- because it didn't strike me as exorbitant either; food is one of the pleasures of life, dammit. (My operating assumption is that life is too short to put up with bad food, bad friends, a lousy job, or uncomfortable clothing.) And after it was my turn for the book, I put it down upon completion, and I started to think about Reichl's main thesis: that money and status are two entirely different things, and how the differing levels of privilege we all carry influence and shape us.

It's something I'm going to keep thinking about for a long time, particularly the next time we sit down to eat out -- whether it be at a hole-in-the-wall family-owned joint, a Major National Chain (tm), or a Dining Experience (tm) -- because Reichl has a lot of very smart, savvy, and interesting things to say, reading between the lines (and sometimes more overt than that) about American national identity, relationship to food, and concepts of service, status, and privilege. This is a no-holds-barred look at the best and the worst of us, and Reichl has the writing chops to pull it off.
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message 1: by Chad (new)

Chad Sayban Great review! Thanks.


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