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Friday, May 16, 2014

Book Review: Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

I loved Ruth Reichl's first memoir, Tender at the Bone. I thought Comfort me With Apples was a good effort but was trying too hard to capitalize on the success of Tender at the Bone, but all the best material from her early life had already been used. So I wasn't sure what to expect from Garlic and Sapphires but I was pleasantly pleased. The first two memoirs were in a very different vein from this one, so it was easy to not compare them (also I read the first two more than ten years ago which also made it easy to consider this book on its own merits.) And I enjoyed it thoroughly.

This isn't as much of a food memoir. I mean, it is. You'll certainly get sumptuous descriptions of stunning meals, but it is not as much about Ruth's relationship with food. It's about her and her husband and her son. And it's about her and her job. And her job was tough. At the start of the book, she reluctantly takes the job of food critic for The New York Times. It sounds great, but there's a big problem. If the restaurant recognizes her, she's going to get excellent but very different service and food than a typical diner. Readers might be terribly disappointed to visit a restaurant which has gotten amazing reviews only to discover they don't get the same quality or treatment as a famous reviewer does. Therefore, Ruth decides to try to dine at all these restaurants in disguise. An old friend of her mother's who works in the theater helps her out at first, and she eventually finds a wig shop that she loves and she creates elaborate backstories for these different women, who range from a rich divorcee who likes to decorate, to a poor, nearly invisible spinster. She finds herself truly embodying these characters and unable to act like herself while in costume. Some characters bring out the best in Ruth, and some bring out the worst. She is shaken when she briefly imitates her mother, and ultimately decides she just can't do it anymore as it takes too much out of her. It's time to move on.

The descriptions of the food are of course mouth-watering and sometimes mind-blowing. The difference in service she receives borders on shocking--once while in costume she has to get up and get her own wine menu, which is taken away from her before she is done with it; and another time when she is recognized she is immediately brought to the best table when she has arrived shockingly early for her reservation and yet the King of Spain is made to wait in the bar (seriously!) It's interesting to hear about how things work at the Times, and yet it's also strange since she doesn't seem to keep anything like normal work hours, nor do most in her department.

If you want the inside scoop on how food reviewing works, or how restaurants can impress and disappoint, this was a fun book. Perfect for armchair travel to New York, and be careful about reading it while you are hungry as you will be tempted to eat more and more, although all the food will be disappointing since it isn't like anything described here.

I bought this book used at The Book Rack.

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