Worth Reading: Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires

Friday, 23 Jan 2009

reichlGarlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise retraces Reichl’s time as the New York Times’ food critic.  You can taste every word of this book.  And it’s good.  I’ve never come across a food writer as gifted as Reichl at conveying the sensory experience of food, and that was the most enjoyable part about reading this book.  I started thinking about food with a renewed appreciation, eating more slowly, and savoring each part of a good meal after I read this.

Sushi, in particular, became a new experience for me after reading this book.  Reichl recounts her discovery of an outstanding sushi establishment and how she took a stubborn friend there to experience sushi for the first time.  I’ve grown more and more fond of sushi over the years, but could still easily get too much of it because of the intensity of flavors and textures.  We went out to sushi the night after I finished this book and I ate more of it than I’ve ever had in one sitting because I just couldn’t stop trying new types of rolls and enjoying the experience.

Reichl’s descriptions have a way of making the most exotic delicacies (sea urchins, for example) seem like something you can’t live life without tasting.  Her prose seems to stop the world around the food in question, blocking out everything unimportant and pinpointing what is supremely good or horribly bad about it.  But she seems to focus on the good more than the bad, and her writing makes you want to eat.

Reichl’s forays into the New York restaurant world in elaborate disguises are downright hilarious, and the politics of life at the New York Times provides plenty of intrigue.  This book has its touching moments as well, as Reichl lets us into her recollections of childhood food experiences with her parents in New York, paralleling them with her own young son’s adventures with her on reviewing missions.

As Reichl made her reviewing rounds, she delivered poetic justice for all of us who’ve experienced not being one of the “right” people at a fancy restaurant.  She endured long lines and uncomfortable waits, snobby treatment, bad tables and bad service while she was decked out as an “invisible” old lady, a colorful bohemian free spirit and other interesting characters who certainly couldn’t be mistaken for Ruth Reichl, New York Times Food Critic, or another Person Who Matters.  Her reviews reflected the dichotomy in the dining experience based on who she was that night — Ruth Reichl or a nobody — and there was certainly something satisfying in the way she shocked New York Times readers with these tales.

I have to thank my friend Kelly for introducing me to Reichl’s writing with her recommendation of Garlic and Sapphires. I would gladly pick up of the rest of Reichl’s books and now have a renewed appreciation for The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Reichl, sitting on my shelf.  The sad news is that Gourmet Magazine, where Reichl is currently editor-in-chief, may not see the end of the year due parent company Conde Nast needing to make cutbacks, according to The Bitten Word and  This would be a loss, indeed, but I trust we would still be able to find Reichl doing what she does best somewhere else should the worst happen at Gourmet.

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