Ruth Reichl was the New York Times food critic for six years in the mid to late nineties. Her newest book, Garlic and Sapphires ia a humorous and interesting look at her stint at the Gray Lady.
Reichl was recruited away from the LA Times to be the NY Times food critic in 1993. One of the first things she realized was that she couldn’t go to most restaurants as herself because she would be too quickly recognized. As such, she was forced to adopt elaborate disguises to ensure that she was treated just like most everyone else who walked in the restaurant door. Garlic and Sapphires is as much an examination of what is means to disguise oneself as it is a memoir of her time in New York. Reichl adopted a series of disguises, complete with wigs, make-up, shoes, and clothes that fit the part so that she wouldn’t be so easily identified. Each disguise was different–the stunning blonde, the nearly invisible little old lady, Reichl’s mom–and each seemed to invest her with a different personality. In her book, she discusses how people treated her differently depending on which disguise she wore and how this makes her feel.
In addition, she recounts what makes a restaurant worthy of four stars, and what dooms a restaurant to a lousy one star rating. During her time at the Times, Reichl reviewed many ethnic restaurants and gave them two or three star ratings, something the previous critic would never have condoned. This break from tradition gave her critics no small amount of ammunition to use against her. In their minds, the only good restaurant is an old-school French restaurant.
In addition to a discussion of restaurants, Reichl discusses the food they serve. If you don’t usually think about what a particular herb brings to a dish, Reichl may open some new doors for you. She also describes how certain foods ought to be prepared so as to not be over or under done and how many restaurants get it wrong.
Finally, Reichl provides recipes in each chapter of the book that are germane to the contents of that chapter. Not all of the recipes are trivial, but none of them are so fussy that they couldn’t be made at home by an experienced cook.
While this book isn’t one that I would normally pick-up and read, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an interesting and entertaining book. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys eating and wants to see the world from the food critic’s point of view for a while.