Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Garlic & Sapphires: Delicious Deception
Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, is what I’d call a “food voyeur” title. This is a growing genre of memoirs about lives spent in and around the big city restaurant scene – usually in New York. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was my introduction to food voyeurism—and I imagine many others’ introduction as well—and it’s still the standard by which I gauge other books of this type, because of its honesty, hilarity and accessibility. (Just thinking about his riff on vegans can still make me chuckle!) Reichl turns the usual formula on its ear – she allows us a glimpse not of the kitchen, but of some of the finest dining rooms in New York City. And in so doing, I think she manages to expand the boundaries of a genre I’ve come to enjoy.
G&S details Reichl’s tenure as the chief restaurant critic for The New York Times, a coveted and significant job in the food world to say the least. Although she’s a native New Yorker, Reichl’s food sensibilities were developed and perfected on the West Coast, and that pushes the boundaries of what she considers great cuisine, causing a rather large rift between her and the previous, Euro-centric chief restaurant critic, which is one of the central tensions of the book.
Reichl shows us the woman’s perspective on what is often thought of as a man’s world. This is partially done through the many disguises she employed to keep her identity secret while she’s working on a restaurant review. The treatment she gets in most restaurants seems linked to the persona she has assumed, and I loved how she used her position to bring attention to the glamor of the dining experience to those who don’t get to dine at great restaurants often – or ever, for that matter.
The woman’s perspective is also clear in the implications of her job – both the credits and the debits – on her husband and son. Eating out sure is fun, but how does a 4- or 5-year old manage so many nights without mom? Or so many late meals with the grownups? Her reflections on these questions – and on her feelings about her duel identities – are deeply reflective and denote a woman who is willing to look critically at her life in order to get the most out of it.
On a personal note, having lived in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s, I loved re-reading her reviews of some of the top restaurants of that era, which brought to mind romantic dinners with my then-fiancé (now husband of nearly 20 years) at places like the Rainbow Room, Cellar in the Sky, Union Pacific, and even – and you’ll have to read the book to see why this is so darned funny – Tavern on the Green. Her witty style really brings the “characters” that make up the front end a restaurant to life – both those that extend diners dignity, and those that do not. Anyone who has ever waited for a table at a trendy restaurant will feel the author’s pain at times; anyone who has unexpectedly gotten the best seat in the house just because the hostess was in the right mood will recognize her exultation. It’s a really fun read, and it goes by too fast.
So as food voyeuristic reads go, put Garlic and Sapphires right up there with Bourdain’s classic exposé, and way ahead of recent entries, such as Heat. That’s book number 5 in the What’s in a Name 3 Challenge: a plant. My last title has to contain a title. I held off on The Professor and the Madman because it also fits into the Goodreads Seasonal Reading Challenge that I’m working on this summer, so that I’ll finish up with that in early June, and then start working on the other two challenges I’ve joined!