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

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
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's review
Feb 22, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010, audiobook-d, food
Read in February, 2010

I listened to this on audiobook. The version I got from the library was read by Bernadette Dunne. Apparently there is a version out there that is read by Ruth Reichl, which I bet is superior. Bernadette was, well, mostly adequate but she mispronounced geoduck. Since I live in Olympia, I think I'm required to be offended by that. For the record, it's gooey-duck not geo-duck. Okay, thanks.

This book is 1-part meditation on fame and pretentiousness, 1-part hilariously delicious food writing, 1-part love letter to NYC, and 1-part costume/identity crisis. It's a very good combination - too much of any part, and it would be off-kilter, but this works.

So this is the story of Ruth Reichl, a NY native who was the food critic for the LA Times. She moves to NY to become a food critic for the NY Times at the urging of her husband and the persuasion of the Times editors and publishers, despite her hesitation and reluctance to take the position. She stays there from 1993 to 1999. The restaurant world in NY is very different from LA, and Ruth finds herself being profiled, stalked, and sought out at every worthwhile restaurant in town. They have flyers up in the kitchen with her picture on it - there are *rewards* for people who can say where she will eat next. She starts wearing costumes to go to restaurants, and compares the service - what does a poorly dressed, meek woman experience at this restaurant - and then Ruth contrasts this with the experience of the NY TIMES FOOD CRITIC at the same restaurant(when she goes as herself). The characters are hilarious, enlightening, sometimes a little sad. The theraputic aspects of costuming and becoming a character really plays out here - when she literally steps into her mother's shoes, and goes out as her mother, she understands better how it felt to move through the world as that difficult personality. Her mom is dead, but I like to think that brought a little peace to their relationship. Some of her characters are the best of herself - a redhead with a wide-mouthed smile and warm laugh - and some of them are the worst of herself - tweed, tightlipped, hypercritical - but the culmination is that they are all parts of herself. I know, it's a little overstated, but still a good reminder for those interested in performative identities.

Each review she writes brings a slew of hate mail. Her readers are merciless. Her style is different from the former critic - she writes about more noodle houses, Korean BBQ's and sushi places in the first year than the previous guy did in his whole career. This does not make her especially popular, at first. People hate change. Eventually, she finds a balance between the fancy, award-winning restaurants with all-star chefs and the smaller places that represent really good dining experiences. But the way she writes about food is sexy and luscious. It's like being in the room. It's a whole story told in the description of one meal. I was struck by none of the squeamishness I usually feel when I (a vegetarian) sit through an omnivore's enthusiastic meat writing.

Ruth talks about food, the people who cook it, the people who serve it, and the people who eat it with a sense of style and righteousness that thrills me to my toes. We are living in the era of the eaters manifestos, of a foodie renaissance, and Ruth's book fits pretty well into that larger conversation. When she discusses her history - in Berkley, starting out as a friend who fed her friends, a cook, and then a food writer, and then a reviewer, her voice makes a lot of sense. She is definitely seated in a particular moment in American Food History. It is also no surprise when she makes a career change at the end - Gourmet magazine seems like a natural fit for her at this point. I think she has some other memoirs about food, and I'm definitely going to look for them at the library. I really enjoyed this, and everyone who rode in my car while I was playing it seemed to tolerate it well. My thirteen year old stepchild practically had an adolescent tantrum when I told him it had to go back to the library.
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