Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise is not a book that I can say I would have picked up in my own right. I read it along with my in-town book club this past month. This book proves what they say about the importance of a book club in that you read books that you might not otherwise pick up. I'm very glad to have had this title placed into my hands. It was tons of fun.
Ruth Reichl has served as a food critic for both the LA Times and the New York Times. She went on from there to work as Editor in Chief at Gourmet Magazine and has a smattering of cooking shows and television appearances on her resume as well. I think it's safe to say that she's made her way nicely around the world of food.
I like food. I like food a lot. I had never tried reading about it before so this was a new experience. If given the choice between eating food, or reading about it, I think I would just as soon eat it. However, there are fewer calories in a book which is its own appeal.
Reichl has written many books about food, Garlic and Sapphires being one of a series. This one picks up in 1993 when she was moving from Los Angeles with her husband and son, to New York to take the job as food critic for the Times. This book is a memoir, detailing her experiences at restaurants in NYC. It makes for more interesting reading than I would have originally suspected. (I'm kind, I know. But my "job" is to review and critic books and hers is to critic food so if she ever stumbles across this review I expect she'll understand some of my expressed skepticism.)
Reichl was not initially well-received in New York due to the fact that she deviated from the norm of highlighting and reviewing French restaurants. She liked all sorts of food (and happily all sorts of food like her) and featured different ethnic restaurants, not just French. By golly, she was daring enough to even feature area steak houses! This was previously unheard of for a Times' food critic! She also suffered some difficulties in being accepted for the simple fact that people knew that she was moving to NY from LA. Although she was born and raised in New York, coming back as an adult to make a name for herself in her chosen field proved difficult. People didn't always catch on to the fact that she was a native and, as anyone from any town can attest (if they are being honest), outsiders are looked at with some degree of suspicion. In order to do her job and do it well, Reichl had to try hard not to focus on the nay sayers but give her best effort in writing up honest reviews about the restaurants she chose to visit.
What is most fascinating about this particular book to me, is the fact that in order to review restaurants, Reichl had to disguise herself so as not to be noticed. Food critics were often given the best treatment, receiving better food and better service if they were identified. She tried to visit each restaurant she was reviewing somewhere between three to five times and she wanted to do so incognito so as to be able to best judge a restaurant based on the treatment received by a "normal" nobody. Reading about the different disguises and personas Reichl put on in order to avoid detection is most of the fun of this book. The other fun aspect is hearing how much these restaurant meals tended to cost! I think it's safe to say that your average person could not afford the meals that Reichl tends to enjoy. She has a nice expense account to help her out and that's something that the rest of us are lacking. I do not point this out because I resent her her spending account. Not at all! This book makes for fun reading because Reichl is clearly doing something that she passionately loves. Whenever anyone loves what they do, I find it hard to resent them their fun. Mostly I just enjoy hearing about how they pursue their goals in life. (Instead of resenting someone for pursuing their dreams, I find it better to be inspired. Reichl inspired me in this manner by being herself and enjoying her work! That's admirable.)
Garlic and Sapphires makes for a quick, entertaining read at roughly 352 pages. I read it in two easy sessions and enjoyed myself immensely. I'll never doubt the fun of reading about food again, although she made me quite hungry in the process. I highly recommend this title to others. You might be hungry at the end of it, but you'll be ok.