Ruth Reichl: Garlic and Sapphires


“You gonna eat that?”

The woman is eyeing the tray the flight attendant has just set before me. I can’t tell if she wants reassurance that I find it as repellent as she does or if she is simply hungry and hopeful that I will hand my food over. I loosen my seat belt, swivel in the narrow seat, and see that her face holds a challenge. Is she daring me to eat the food?

 Ruth is on her way to her new job as food critic for the New York Times. Her seatmate, a waitress as it turns out, knows everything about her, right down to her husband’s name and her son’s age. Every restaurant in town, she says, has Ruth’s picture pinned to the bulletin board next to the specials of the day. Ruth has been a restaurant critic for fifteen years, but nobody has every bothered to study her like this. If she wants to get a true view of a restaurant, she has to be anonymous, and obviously, she can’t be in New York.  “We’re not so easy to fool”, as her new friend tells her.

I wonder how other restaurant critics deal with this.  Ruth’s solution is imaginative – she simply becomes other people.  With the help of makeup, wigs, and carefully-chosen clothes she becomes Molly, a lady who lunches, married to a man who made a killing in real estate. She becomes her own mother, Miriam.  She becomes sexy Chloe with a Marilyn Monroe whisper and the ability to bring taxis to a screeching halt, red-haired Brenda dressed in vintage Chinese silks and enormous platform shoes, and downtrodden Betty, dressed from the thrift store.  She finds that all these women are treated differently in restaurants – but the surprise is, she finds she becomes a different woman each time.  As her mother she terrorises waiters about their presentation and the temperature of the soup, as Chloe she breathes admiringly, “You know so much” as her self-described “connoisseur” dinner companion chooses the wrong wine and confidently misidentifies the ingredients of dishes,  as Betty she feels grateful for the waiter’s most fleeting attention, and as Brenda, whom the whole world loves, she becomes warm, generous and open-hearted.  She doesn’t do any of this consciously – it just happens to her when she takes on the new appearance.

It’s a lot of fun and quite thought-provoking. We all know gentlemen prefer blondes, but her experiences as Chloe amaze her, and equally amazing is her newly-found ability to deploy all the femme fatale tricks as to the manner born. When she’s Brenda all the world seems attracted to her generous spirit. Maybe those of us who tend to be grumps should try the Brenda experiment.

Her restaurant reviews are a delight, full of her enquiring, humorous personality as well as descriptions of food that take you into another universe. There are recipes, too. Reichl went on from the New York Times to edit Gourmet magazine, an offer that came just as she was feeling increasingly unhappy with the life of restaurant critic.  After years of dining in the finest restaurants, “I really wanted to go home and cook for my family,” she says. Lucky family.

11 thoughts on “Ruth Reichl: Garlic and Sapphires

  1. I don’t usually read food writing but this looks really good. Besides, it’s Reichl — she’s such a wonderful writer. Years ago I read an excerpt from her Tender at the Bone (a section dealing with her mother, a/k/a “the Queen of Mold”) and despite my initial disinterest became completely absorbed.

    1. Yes, it’s a great read, not only for the dining escapades but the behind-the-scenes look at the workings of big-name restaurants. And you have to be impressed at her highly-tuned tasting apparatus – she can even identify squid ink in a dressing.
      There’s an impressively simple cheesecake recipe, too.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful book choice. I like the perspective that she becomes all of those people. Anthea bleached her hair once so she could see whether blondes really did have more fun (apparently, they didn’t, or at least she didn’t), and also dyed it a brilliant blue (a birthday present from us, as I recall), which I thought was more fun. I’ll give it some thought.

    1. She put a lot of thought into it – the wardrobe and makeup as well as the wigs. And maybe there’s a frustrated actress in her…. Anthea might not have it in her to do the admiring blonde.

  3. This sounds like a lot of fun! As you know I enjoy food writing, and this seems to tick a lot of boxes for me. Not a writer I’ve ever encountered before, so I’m grateful for the introduction. Thanks for the tip!

    1. Yes, it’s hard work. And she attracted a lot of criticism because the previous critic was heavily into the traditional French cuisine while she enjoyed finding new Asian restaurants. She knows a lot about Japanese cuisine.

  4. I am so culturally ignorant that I assumed this was a wonderful work of fiction — until I got near the end. But what a fantastic way to approach your work, whatever it is, to adopt different personae, and how enlightening it must be for someone who is creative, whether as a food critic, actor, reporter or anything else.

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