Book: Garllic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Interesting in several ways but doesn't quite come together

Ruth Reichl
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
Penguin, 2005
ISBN: 0 14 30.3661 0
333 pages

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl is about the author's six-year tenure as restaurant critic for the New York Times. That's a potentially interesting topic for a book: one can guess a bit about how widely-read restaurant critics do their jobs and what they might think but not say in their reviews, but most people probably don't know much about a restaurant critic's life. And Ms Reichl has a fair number of interesting things to tell the reader. But, alas, the book never quite comes together into an organic whole.

In the book's first chapter, Ms Reichl is on a flight from Los Angeles (where she is winding up her job as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times) to New York (where she plans to look for an apartment and begin sampling restaurants) when she is recognized by the woman in the next seat. Not only does the woman know who she is, she has guessed what her plans for her trip are. Worse, she tells Ms Reichl, everyone else in New York's upscale restaurant business knows who she is and is expecting her as well.

That's an interesting and engaging beginning to the book and Ms Reichl's response to being so well known is to create various elaborate disguises in an effort to remain undetected as she dines. That's good fun to read about and it gets more interesting because Ms Reichl invents characters and back-stories to go with her disguises. Then she finds herself getting into the characters as well. In one disguise she's very kind and a little goofy and in another she's thoroughly imperious.

Ms Reichl also has interesting things to say about how restaurants do business in New York. I'd have supposed that the job of cooking a steak in a restaurant was sufficiently straightforward that everyone would be served steaks that differed only in how thoroughly done they were. But at one meal, when Ms Reichl's dinner companion was recognized as someone important and she wasn't, he got a good steak and she got a lousy one. We also learn something about what it was like to work for the New York Times, nearly a decade ago now.

And there's one hilarious part in which Ms Reichl complained of a restaurant's tacky decor in an article, referring to "ersatz old things" (p. 118). The restaurant's owners responded angrily that all of their tacky old things were impeccably genuine.

The parts are interesting and often very good: Ms Reichl's characters are often fascinating, the other people in the book are interesting, and there is much to learn about food and restaurants. But those parts never quite come together to tell a single story. If a reader is sufficiently interested in one or more of the things that Ms Reichl discusses, the book may well be worth reading. But it would have been much better if Ms Reichl had found a way to make all those things work together.

Posted: Sun - July 13, 2008 at 01:36 PM   Main   Category: