I read Ruth Reichl's novel, Delicous! a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed it. Following a young woman who takes a job at a food magazine, only to find it shut down and that she's been left on as the only employee to uphold its "Delicious Guarantee," it's filled with the wonderful food scene of New York City to a woman who hasn't lived there her entire life. Now, reading Reichl's nonfiction Garlic and Sapphire, I can see where so much of that book came from.
Garlic and Sapphires follows Reichl through her time as the food critic for the New York Times. Coming from the Los Angeles Times, Reichl is stunned to realize that the restaurateurs of New York are prepared for her arrival, and decides that the only way she'll get a genuine eating experience is to don disguises. And so begins a string of alter-egos that Reichl draws up, from the happy and flamboyant Brenda to the downright mean Emily to the semblance of her own mother, and more. Of course, she doesn't do all of her dining anonymously, and the differences in treatment as her very own self and her alternate personas becomes evident pretty much immediately. When she dines as herself, she's showered with good service, the raspberries on her tarts get bigger, she's showered with a wealth of deserts and tasting dishes. When she dines anonymously, she gets the experience that pretty much any other diner would get, which varies wildly from place to place.
What I disliked about this book is that, while Reichl revels in her alternate identities, they seem to become an excuse for engaging in bad behavior more often than not. She sends every dish in a meal back to the kitchen because it's what her mother would have done. She's unnecessarily cruel to a young couple sitting at the next table over. She does realize this, in the end, but only because a friend points it out, and she never really takes responsibility for the things that she does while in disguise. She acts like, when she puts on a wig, fake makeup, and clothes from the thrift store, she actually becomes another person, with no control over her own actions, when in fact that isn't the case. She never really owns up to this, just decides to put the whole thing behind her, and it made me really not like Reichl as much as a person. Yes, the anecdotes she relates are entertaining, but underlying most of them is this subtle menace of bad behavior that will never be acknowledged or apologized for.
But one thing is certainly true: Reichl can write about food. This shouldn't come as a surprise, given her stints as restaurant credit and editor of Gourmet magazine (now defunct), but the descriptions of food absolutely shine in this book. She can make any meal seem appealing, even, strangely, the ones that she didn't actually enjoy. It's the specter of good food, maybe, more than the actuality of it that does the trick. It all comes back to something Reichl says early in the book: that restaurant reviews aren't written for the people that will eat at the restaurants, but for those who never will. As someone who will definitely never eat at any of the restaurants Reichl describes (if they're still even open; she was the NYT critic in the early 90s) I can appreciate the luscious descriptions she puts down on the page, drawing out every experience as if I were actually there.
There was one more downfall to this book: it's repetitive. Reichl follows her narrative experiences of restaurants with actual reviews of some of them, which usually tend to rehash a lot of the same stuff she just related. She does intersperse the reviews and narratives with recipes, her own takes on some of the things that she ate, which helps to break this up, but not enough to completely save the book from its repetitive feel.
Overall, an enjoyable reading experience, but I have some reservations about the repetitiveness and the way that Reichl never really seems to own up to her bad behavior. I'm interested in reading her other works--Delicious! was just so good--but while I liked this, I couldn't bring myself to love it.
3 stars out of 5.