Garlic and Sapphires

Garlic and Sapphires

by Ruth Reichl

No matter how ravenously, how fervently my howling stomach begged for food, my hands were submissively glued to Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.  In the third installment of her memoirs, Ruth Reichl, current editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine, recounts the palatable escapades of her five-year stint as restaurant critic for the New York Times.  Spiced by an extensive array of personalities and pursuits, Garlic and Sapphires is a deliciously entertaining tale in which we uncover the fascinating, yet often pretentious New York restaurant scene, as well as Reichl’s (and our own) complex relationships with food and self.

As the critic of Times, Reichl rebelled against the paper’s traditions and brought a fresh, radical perspective to its pages — while turning dining and reviewing into a theatrical art.  Rather than limiting the star system to the posh fine-dining restaurants of New York, she also transformed obscure ethnic joints into radiant eateries. Her reviews, enlightening and honest, broadened the definition of which types of restaurants deserved starred distinction.  The result: immediate and intense scrutiny, earning her a reputation as one of America’s most controversial restaurant critics.

Delivered in the same frank, funny, approachable voice as in her first two books, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples, in Garlic and Sapphires Reichl interweaves her Times reviews with a fascinating look at the lengths to which she strived for objectivity.

Compelled by a respect for food and the belief that it is both part of a community’s experience and an essential part of life, Reichl was eager to ensure her experiences dining at New York’s most expensive restaurants were no different from those of her average readers.  With the help of Claudia — the tiny, chain-smoking friend of her late mother, and a gifted acting coach — she dined in disguise, fully inhabiting different personalities to protect her anonymity.  From “Chloe” the sexy siren and “Betty” the lovable free-spirit, to the reincarnation of her own eccentric mother Miriam, she found that people of differing powers and sophistications were not treated equally at many of New York’s restaurants.  Hence her most famous dual critique attacking the Times publisher’s favorite eatery, Le Cirque: In her first experience, dining as schoolteacher Molly, she was completely disappointed, while in the second (as herself), she feasted like a queen.

Each persona created was a piece of Riechl’s own identity expanded and magnified, and by taking on these guises she discovered aspects of herself previously hidden from view.  At their core, Reichl’s experiences led to the discovery of her own faults and strengths, and challenged her to evaluate the priorities in her life, ultimately coloring the decision to walk away from her role at the Times.

A critic’s job is not merely to record events, but to educate and inform readers with absolute observation; the food critic does not want to be recognized, and therefore catered to, since he wants to replicate the dining experience of a “regular” reader.  While some used the foil of Reichl’s disguises to “prove” that restaurants are out to deceive us (and we can only expose them undercover), others believed they allowed the almost impossible feat of reviewing something that is in constant change.

Whatever your opinion on the matter of restaurant criticism, if you love food, this memoir will be a welcome addition to your epicurean library.  Ruth Reichl’s zeal for food is again wonderfully expressed in Garlic and Sapphires, reinforcing the warmth and humor that have made her such an engaging and recognized food writer. We can only hope for a part four.

Review by Monica Glass

Monica is a gourmande living in New York City who devotes her time to cooking at home (she’s particularly fond of desserts) and working as a pastry intern at Gotham Bar and Grill — in the midst of an array of personal and work adventures that never take her far from the realm of food.