Monday, October 02, 2006

Dining in disguise

Garlic and Sapphires

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
Ruth Reichl

Don’t read this book in a public place if you’re embarrassed to be caught laughing aloud at the printed page. As I finished each chapter, coming back to myself out of the tale that Reichl had spun, I would wonder bemusedly if anyone had noticed me grinning like a fool, alone at a café table.

Reichl, now editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, writes about her six years as restaurant critic for the New York Times. The book is certainly about food, sublime dishes that fire the imagination, and you are there at the table as Reichl experiences them. But even more, the story is about the transformations that Reichl goes through after she dons the mantle of “the most powerful restaurant critic in the world.”

To avoid being recognized as a restaurant reviewer, Reichl develops disguises. These go beyond clothing and wigs to become complete personas. With each character, Reichl learns something about her own personality as well as the hopes and expectations of her readers.

What is the role of the restaurant critic? Reichl believes that a review of a high-end restaurant should not be written for the relatively small group of people who will dine there in any given year. How many more readers of the Times will never visit this place but would love to imagine what it would be like?

When Reichl sees diners being treated shabbily, she becomes their champion. She understands that people come to a famous restaurant "willing to pay for the privilege of feeling rich and important for a few small hours," and she fearlessly skewers pretentious waiters and slapdash meals.

The masquerade wears thin after a while, however, as Reichl examines her own motives. Whenever she writes about a $100 meal, a little voice inside her head whispers "elitist," and readers write in to point out that half of the world is hungry. Reichl came up in the '70s, lived in a Berkeley commune, long before the era of celebrity chefs and fusion cuisine. How can she stay true to her ideals ? "When people flatter you constantly," she observes, "it is very tempting to think that you deserve it."

Through it all, Reichl writes like a dream. It is almost an out-of-body experience to read about her culinary adventures. With just a few words she conveys scents, sights, and flavors.

As someone who hangs back in my mother’s kitchen to snare the bone from the holiday prime rib, this ode to the joys of carnivorism resonated with me:

…I’d bring the bone up to my face until the aroma – animal and mineral, dirt and rock – was flooding my senses. Then I’d bite into the meat, soft and chewy at the same time, rolling it around in my mouth. It was juicy, powerful, primal, and I’d take another bite, and another. The meat closest to the bone was smooth as satin, and sweet. It tasted like nothing else on earth, and I would gnaw happily until the bone was stripped naked and my face was covered with a satisfying layer of grease.

I would never have verbalized that experience using the words “dirt” and “rock,” but now that I’ve read it, it seems the perfect description.

Each chapter follows a pattern of sorts: A conflict arises, much food is consumed and discussed, there is a resolution of some sort, and the story ends with a bit of wisdom earned, a tidbit in a doggie bag to take home. I don’t mean this disparagingly. It’s a wonderful ride.

Perhaps I’m just jealous that my life doesn’t present itself to me replete with quotable characters, hilarious situations, coincidences and near-misses that all come together in the end. I suspect that in Reichl’s company, my own experiences would appear in a different light.

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