Garlic and Sapphires
by Ruth Reichl


Penguin, 2005. ISBN 0143036610.
Reviewed by Lisa Check
Posted on 12/14/2006

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen; Nonfiction: Active Life

I am an Angelino, so Ruth Reichl will always be in my blood. She was "our" food critic first and in the late 80's and 90's, she led me to some of my most memorable haunts. In her new book, Garlic and Sapphires, she documents her move from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times. In the beginning of the book, she details how she fought getting the job at the Times. She even states to her future employers "Your reviews are very useful guides for the people who already eat in the restaurants you review...You shouldn't be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants but for those who wish they could." At the LA Times she did just that, and more. She brought ethnic and out of the way places into the consciousness of the fledgling foodies in Los Angeles.

Well, even with a determination to "fail" the interview, she lands the job and she along with her family move to New York. On the plane there, a seatmate who just happens to be a waitperson in NYC recognizes her. Ruth is told that all the restaurants already have her picture up and are looking for advance intelligence about her whereabouts. Ruth realizes that she will have to be craftier to get a true picture of each restaurant that she reviews. Here begins her adventure.

Ruth, aided by her mother's friend, begins to develop disguises. But they aren't just disguises, but alternative personas. They have names, credit cards, husbands or exes. They have outfits, wigs, and voices as well. By becoming these women, Ruth is able to slip into the world of the "ordinary" diner. She can see what each restaurant will serve to the patrons who seem to be nobodies. She is also able to see what the difference is when the restaurateur or staff recognizes her and gives her the "star" treatment. At one restaurant, she is even seated prior to the King of Spain who is kept waiting, while Reichl is seated prior to her reservation.

Ruth juggles her work life and home life to perfection, bringing her son on her restaurant tastings as well as cooking at home. Her young son, who enjoys a meal alone with his mom better than anything else, keeps Reichl down to earth. He requests MatzoBrei when Ruth is at a low point and they eat it by candlelight, savoring each other's company. In this process of using disquises and becoming someone other than herself, Reichl does lose her way. Her husband brings to mind the poem Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot "Garlic and Sapphires in the mud" as a way to describe the transition of Ruth from someone passionate about food and cooking to one who brags and trades shots with people who want one up her. Hence, the title shows her inner struggle to stay true to her passion without giving herself away. To not fit into what other people expect her to be as the most powerful food critic in the country, but rather stay true to herself.

Ruth has a spectacular way of describing food. She can paint a picture of the food and you can practically taste it as you read. For example on page 75: "The abalone was like no other creature I've ever eaten, hard and smooth, more like some exotic mushroom than something from the ocean, with a slightly musky flavor that made me think of ferns. Beside it the geoduck was pure ocean—crisp and briny and incredibly clean—so that what I thought of was the deep turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Next to the pure austerity of these two, the Japanese clam seemed lush and almost baroque in its sensuality." There are pages and pages of meals that made my mouth water. Ruth is a wordsmith and tastesmith of the finest quality. It is a joy to read her words and live the life of a NY restaurant critic for at least a few hours.

There are many articles and interview available on the web. These are three that I particularly liked: www.salon.com, www.psychologytoday.com, and www.npr.org (this is a Fresh Air Interview) These pictures also give you a sense of Ruth's transformation (Ruth as herself, Ruth as Molly).

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