- What: Garlic and Sapphires
- Who: Ruth Reichl
- Pages: 334, soft cover
- Genres: Memoir and food and drink
- Published: 2005
- The lit: of 5 flames
I love food almost much as I love books, and on occasion, it takes the cake (pun totally intended). Surprisingly, unless you count the growing number of cookbooks I possess, rarely do food and literature come in contact with each other in my life. They did earlier this year when I read a dreadful book about a supper club. (It was more coming-of-age/confusing drama than supper club, though). That was less than satisfying.
Recently, I finished A Little Life and felt my soul sink to a new low; something can be four or five flames without providing contentment. So BLL friend Dana came through once again when I told her I needed an absolute joyous read that was both flameworthy and would bring me zero sadness.
Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Enter: A memoir by a former New York Times restaurant critic.
I distinctly remember laughing on page two of Garlic and Sapphires and thinking I had found the perfect pick-me-up. That laughter returned at many, many points during this book, and I also remember a lot of New York nostalgia and my constantly growling stomach … perhaps that’s just par for the course for this book-lovin’ foodie.
The reason I laughed on page two of Garlic and Sapphires is because Ruth Reichl is en route to New York when the woman sitting next to her starts eating the food that Reichl is clearly not going to finish. This woman knows Reichl won’t finish the airplane food because why would an accomplished restaurant critic who is about to start at the New York Times even touch that despicable food? She eventually teaches Reichl that everyone in New York already knows who she is — being the restaurant critic at the Times equates to at least B-level status after all — and that she cannot hide.
That won’t work for Reichl who needs anonymity when visiting restaurants. How can she understand a restaurant’s service and skill through a “regular” person’s perspective if restaurants just want to impress the most popular critic in town? So Reichl decides to go incognito for her reviews as she creates characters with both eccentric looks and eccentric personalities. From fabulous wigs to enigmatic personalities, Reichl covers the gamut of New York’s finest all for the sake of helping the real New Yorkers determine the best of Big Apple cuisine.
As I said before, Reichl’s memoir will make you laugh and smile. For one thing, she truly has a way with words. Clearly, she’s the type of newspaper writer who can tell a really great story while presenting all of the facts, and doing so in the book medium isn’t usually easy for journalist types. But she’s great with a turn of a phrase, and she uses puns and analogies to make you feel like you’re at happy hour with your good friend Ruth who is telling you about her crazy day. Not to mention her details and descriptions will awaken all of your senses — not just taste.
It’s not just the technical aspects of Reichl’s writing, though; it’s also the characters she created in real life, which say a lot about her own creativity. This creativity shines forth in her writing, and watching Reichl turn into these characters makes for delightful reading.
You meet a mousy old woman who talks so quietly that one of her dinner dates consistently shouts at her to speak up. Then you are introduced to a foxy red-head who knows exactly what she wants and when she wants it. You also meet the poorly dressed, middle-age woman who has no idea how to dress for the fancy NYC lunch scene but knows when she’s not treated fairly. Reichl even turns into her own mother who has long passed to review some restaurants, and she spooks herself by how much she looks and feels like her mother.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading not just about the disguises Reichl created but also their complete backstories. She doesn’t simply conceive these stories as an afterthought; she feels their personalities and experiences as soon as she puts on the disguises. They seamlessly come to her like calling a spirit from the beyond.
Through all of these disguises, Reichl highlights the absurdities, attention, and doting that are bestowed upon the rich, famous, and powerful. That really just equates to a larger social flaw that says being famous or a big deal means you deserve special attention or treatment; all others should throw in the towel because you’re a nobody who deserves average service and treatment — at best. Reichl writes about this flaw in humanity, especially in New York, in many of her reviews, some of which she includes in this memoir (along with recipes that have been screenshotted and saved for future cooking and baking).
Reichl was clearly ahead of her time and very influential in the New York food scene as well. Critics before her exemplified the long-held belief that classically trained French cooking and cuisine sat on a pedestal. Anything else didn’t deserve to be entertained for the Times reviews. Reichl changed that by reviewing all sorts of restaurants and really popularizing Asian cuisine in the city. That worldly and progressive view changed food culture for the better.
Despite Reichl’s entertaining, insightful, and mouth-watering writing, her memoir does lack a firm narrative and plot even though she tries creating them. I don’t necessarily need memoirs to have a story with a climax, some big ah-ha moment, and important lessons. (Although if I didn’t have these things, I’m self-aware enough to know that I’d probably complain and ask “What’s the point?”)
However, one was sort of woven into Garlic and Sapphires. I say sort of because the book never evidenced the actual climax or problem or how Reichl got to certain conclusions. I was simply enjoying Reichl’s many characters and the points she made about the service industry and how you treat humans; that to me was the point of this book. I didn’t need to uncover the author’s self-reflections and the lessons she learned about herself.
That sounds rude and insensitive; I get it. I just wish that if those self-reflections were truly a part of Reichl’s story and of her experience as a Times critic, that that plot had been fleshed out more rather than seeming to have been dropped in at the last minute.
You can’t deny that Reichl has a flair for food, details, and humor, and that’s exactly what I needed the weeks leading up to reading this book. Honestly, those are qualities I always want in a book. Garlic and Sapphires isn’t just a pick-me-up after a sad read or during a pandemic (though I cast no judgment on books that are just that). It’s an enlightening and tasty treat that would have fulfilled me regardless of my surroundings and current experiences — kind of like your favorite restaurant that always hits the spot.