Garlic & Sapphires is another set of Ruth Reichl’s autobiographical vignettes, this time set in the period during which she was the head food critic for the New York Times. Each chapter focuses on a different restaurant review, ending with the text of the original review and usually a recipe from the restaurant, or one that was integral to the story.
In order to review a restaurant, Reichl would visit the location several times, ordering different foods from the menu, going with different groups of people at different times, and often disguising herself. These disguises were necessary to hide her identity as the NY Times food critic – Reichl could not objectively evaluate the restaurant if she were receiving special treatment as part of her job title. The disguises were not so much wigs and costumes as they were complete personality makeovers. In essence, Reichl would become a completely different person, or as she liked to think, a different facet of her personality. One of the characters, Betty, was an old woman so timid she was often completely ignored by wait staff. Brenda, a loud, talkative redhead, was Reichl at her best – friendly, outgoing, adventurous, funny. However, throughout the book, there is a clear evolution and devolution of the characters and toward the end of the story, Reichl’s husband fears that she is becoming her characters. Her dedication to the position of head food critic and its necessary disguises has overtaken Reichl’s true personality.
However, the pull of this book is once again Reichl’s gift for storytelling and her ability to transport the reader to any dinner table. Reichl freely admits in all of her books that she takes great creative license, and while the major events were all part of her life, she often renames characters, changes the order of events, omits important people, and takes great liberty with conversations. This allows her to construct a linear narrative, one that is most certainly not present in ordinary life. Each collection of Reichl’s writing has overarching themes, main characters, and most importantly, excellent food writing. In Garlic & Sapphires, Reichl’s food writing is exquisite. Excerpts from relevant restaurant reviews as well as extended accounts of her many meals at each location bring the reader to the table, and her descriptions of each dish are mouthwatering.
Although Reichl has been criticized for her flowery prose (in addition to criticism of too much artistic license), I think that her writing style is particularly suited to the genre of food writing. Because we are not present at the meals described, have not been to the restaurant or countries that the author writes about, it is especially important for a food writer to describe a meal, a dish, or a restaurant with care. The same problem often appears in programs like Top Chef – how can you judge a plate of food if you can’t eat it? Through Reichl’s extraordinary writing, you can come close to eating the same food, to having the same experiences that she had. Garlic & Sapphires is by no means a perfect book, and it is not my favorite book by Reichl – Comfort Me with Apples or Tender at the Bone easily takes that prize – but it is an interesting look at the world of food writing, and Reichl’s unorthodox approach to the position of food critic at the NY Times.
To someone who loves food writing, I would give this book between 4 and 5 stars – it was a very good book, but some of Reichl’s earlier writing is much better. For the general public, I give it three stars. It’s a good book about food writing, but its appeal is not as broad as to be read universally.