Saturday, September 1, 2012

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

The New York Times newspaper restaurant critic has a lot of power since his or her reviews and star ratings are coveted by New York eateries. Garlic and Sapphires is Ruth Reichl's memoir of her time as the New York Times restaurant critic and it was our Kitchen Reader book this month, chosen by Marian of Spelt for Choice.

In an effort to write fair reviews of the restaurants she visited, Reichl resorted to disguises. As a result, this book is partly about food - and the food writing is sublime - and partly about Reichl's identity crisis as she dons the lives of her disguises.

She finds herself having to become other women, not just in looks but in personality as well. And strangely she finds herself drawn to Brenda, a person she becomes who is more generous and flamboyant than herself. When she eats out as Brenda several times with her husband, she notices the way he talks about Brenda makes her jealous. On the other hand, she also becomes stingy, difficult women through her disguises. Her friends don't enjoy eating out with her in some of these personas. Reichl realises that these disguises have helped her see her best and worst selves.

In the end of the book, Reichl's desire just to be herself again leads to her moving on to a different job. (She went on to become the editor of Gourmet magazine.) "It was time to think my own thoughts" she explained.

Besides Reichl's introspective musings about identity, the book also contains fascinating stories of the restaurants she visited, and a selection of recipes aimed at home cooks. (Frustratingly, there is no index of these recipes. It is hard to find them again later.) Also, Reichl's huge food knowledge comes through in lots of places. I learned that a beef, lamb, or pork steak gets its distinctive taste from the fat. Without this it is difficult to identify which meat you are eating.

Reichl has written two other memoirs from earlier parts of her life: Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples. The Kitchen Reader group read Tender at the Bone several years ago: here is my review of it, including her devil's food cake recipe. The Kitchen Reader is a book club of bloggers who read food writing; you would be most welcome to join!

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