Saturday, July 26, 2014

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

I expected to like this book. I couldn't imagine not enjoying a book about a restaurant critic for the New York Times who is so determined to expose the truth about fancy restaurants that she dines in disguise. (And yes, it's nonfiction.)

And Garlic and Sapphires exceeded my expectations. Not only did it provide descriptions of meals and life as a New York Times restaurant critic, it also addressed the issues that Reichl faced. Halfway through the book, I was beginning to be a bit sickened by the idea of someone criticizing minute details of ridiculously luxurious meals. I'm not trying to be one of those self-righteous "children are starving in Africa" people, but it just seems wrong to be critical of a $100 prepaid meal while you're being waited on hand and foot.

I was surprised and pleased that Reichl tackled this issue. She didn't want to become the pretentious NY Times restaurant critic, trusting all too thoroughly in her own importance as the "Princess of New York" (as Reichl says). Near the end of the book, she has an experience that I think illustrates perfectly what a restaurant critic ought to consider her mission: She eats in an expensive restaurant that serves truly terrible food and has horrible service, and notices that a young couple at the table next to her seem to be the sort of people who have saved up for a fancy meal. Unfortunately, the service and food are so terrible that they can't enjoy their time. She insists on paying for their meal: "Let me pick up your check. Take the money you were going to spend here and go to another restaurant. A good one." When they protest, she says, "It's sort of part of my job. What I'm supposed to do is make sure that people don't waste their money in places like this. . . ." A restaurant critic isn't supposed to spend her time basking in her power, being as judgmental as possible to make herself feel more knowledgeable and important. She should be the informed voice that can help those of us who can't eat fancy meals every day (like me--and like most people) make good decisions when we do go out for special occasions.

Reichl begins to realize that she is becoming a person she doesn't want to be. After her husband, friends, and her young son point out to her that she's changed and she's no longer doing what will truly make her happy, she has to decide what matters most.

I expected this book to be light-hearted and eye-opening, which it was. What I didn't expect was for it to be introspective and even a little bit powerful, and it was that too. Wearing the disguises forced Reichl to recognize the good and bad parts of herself, and in the end, she realized how much power the disguises held over her. Although the disguises were funny to read about at times, they also made me wonder how I would change if I dressed up differently and wore a wig. What kind of person could I be? And what kind of person do I want to be? Reichl's unusual experience of disguising her big-deal-restaurant-critic identity became somehow relatable.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes foodie memoirs. It's not heavy at all (despite what I've made it sound like here...), it's fun, but it's also not annoyingly fluffy; there's a point, and it's an important one.

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