Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of A Critic In Disguise

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When I unwrapped the gift from my mom and saw Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, I was confused.

“You said you wanted it,” my mom said.

“Did I?” I asked, turning the book over to read the back cover. I skimmed it, hoping something would jog my memory although I couldn’t even remember ever seeing this book in my life, let alone wanting it. Sorry.

“It was on your Amazon list,” she confirmed.

“Oh, my Amazon list,” I said slowly.

My Amazon list contains pages and pages of books. I add books every now and then based on recommendations I see from other readers online. If I need and want the book that instant, I buy it that instant. If I don’t, it stays on my list. Even though I couldn’t remember ever having added Garlic and Sapphires to my Amazon list, the very fact that it had been there meant that at some point in time I’d heard of it, and I wanted it. And now, I had it.

“Thanks,” I said, add it to the stack of books on my shelf that I was planning to read soon.

Later, when I began reading it, I remembered what had struck me about it and why. Garlic and Sapphires is a memoir. Ruth Reichl was once the New York Times food critic. That’s why I wanted this book.

Don’t get me wrong here, because I’m not what some people would call a “foodie”. I am not a food person. I eat food, of course, but my connection with food ends there.

The fact that this book is a memoir is what made me want it. But this was the first memoir I was planning to read that was written by someone I wasn’t already familiar with, so I was a little hesitant. I like to read books about the lives of the people I admire, whether they are present-day public figures or past historical ones. People who I already know I like and want to know more about.

Well, the problem of finding any sort of connection with this book was laid to rest after the very first page. I was instantly gripped by the scenario presented: the new New York Times food critic is recognizable by everyone in town, making it impossible to do her job. Solution? Create multiple disguises and personas to throw everyone off so she can work in peace.

And here I thought this book was going to be boring, silly me.

If it sounds far-fetched think about it like this: if The New York Times food critic walks into a restaurant, he or she is going to get the best treatment possible, right? The best food, the best wine, the best service, the best seating. But what if someone of considerable less importance, less wealth, less notoriety was to walk in? Would they be treated the same?

Reichl knew that she wanted to give honest reviews of each restaurant she visited and the only way to do that was to dress up like other people to determine whether or not a restaurant was capable of giving consistent service to all patrons of all walks of life. She was acutely aware of the fact that not everyone who read the restaurant review column was a wealth socialite, and thus was writing with the common New Yorker in mind.

Reichl tells about how she came to work at the New York Times after working at the L.A. Times, and her process of reviewing restaurants, both as herself and in disguise. The suspense of wondering whether or not she will (or won’t be recognized) in her various disguises is part of what makes it such an entertaining read.

Now, as a self-described non-foodie I will admit that a lot of the sections specifically about food went right over my head. I don’t eat half the things she’s eaten, never have and probably never will. But that’s not the point. Included in this book are all of the original restaurant reviews that Reichl wrote when she was the food critic and let me assure you, non-foodie to non-foodie, you do not have to be a foodie or a chef or a food critic to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate her restaurant reviews.

But it turns out that some people out there don’t like food critics. They think they are snobs. Reichl is fully aware of that, and she wrote about her experience with this conundrum in her piece titled: “Why I Disapprove of What I Do: It’s indecent to glamorize a $100 meal. Or is it?”

 

“Yes, there are still restaurants where rich people get to remind themselves that they are different from you and me. But there are fewer and fewer of them. As American food has come of age, American restaurants have changed. Going out to eat used to be like going to the opera; today, it is more like going to the movies” (Reichl, 228).

 

Everyone deserves to appreciate a good meal; this is not an event that should be reserved for just one class of people. What better person to write the restaurant reviews than someone who understands that perspective? Garlic and Sapphires delves into the behind-the-scenes of the life of the New York Times food critic and is an utterly fascinating read.

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I’ll admit I’ve never read a restaurant review before reading the ones in this book, so I’m curious: Do you read restaurant reviews for fun, or are you genuinely looking for recommendations?

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