Review: Garlic and Sapphires, the Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

I’m reading Reichl’s life backwards.  Last year I read the excellent Save Me the Plums, so this year I decided to go back to her previous book, about her work as the restaurant critic for the New York Times.  And while I enjoyed this one a bit less, Reichl is still an engaging and thoughtful writer for anyone interested in the world of food.

This book covers Reichl’s life from around the time of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles (1992), when she heads off to interview for the position with the New York Times, and it ends some time before 2000.  I appreciated how she anchors her own life with world events.  This book talks about the ups and downs of her work as a restaurant critic, but she focuses on how she plays with different disguises so she can eat out anonymously. She realizes that she’ll be recognized in most restaurants and that their treatment of her will be completely different from how they treat other guests. And she wants to review restaurants for everyone, not just high-powered diners.

So she sets out to become unrecognizable, and along the way she learns quite a bit about what it means to don a different appearance.  She’s treated differently depending on whether she’s blond or redheaded, young or old, beautiful or dowdy. She discovers that changing clothes and hair and makeup changes one’s personality as well.

Reichl goes so deep into her disguises, it actually scares her some times.  At first I was a little skeptical of the impact it had on her. But I had an experience a couple of weeks ago that made me think. I had to get some medical tests, and as I shuffled around the radiology center in my hospital gown and socks, and was poked and prodded, I felt like I was a completely different person- I felt so timid and nervous I could only say “thank you” or “I’m fine” when asked anything. And when I put my clothes back on it was with a huge sense of relief. Of course it was the situation, not just the gown, but we know that clothes can either strip away someone’s personality (as with prison uniforms) or they can build it up (as with a fancy gown or a Halloween costume). What Reichl does is the whole package – from shoes to hair to jewelry and even nails.  And what she finds are different sides of herself. 

Reichl has a dream job as far as I can tell, though she does explore some of the ups and downs of her work, like hate mail from people who disagree with her reviews, and missing the simple joys of cooking at home.  Most interesting was her experience of being a frequent “date” auctioned off for charities to big spenders who want to go to high-end restaurants with a famous critic. 

I did find this book a bit repetitive, as it mostly goes through creating her different disguises (most chapters are  named for one of her “characters”), then she eats at a restaurant, and then we get to read her review.  I would have liked more information about the mechanics of her work, like how she chooses where she reviews and how she actually writes her pieces (in the newsroom?  What kind of editing process does she go through?)  These things are touched upon but I would have loved more detail. I got a little bored with her lengthy “food tour” of Brooklyn, where she visits all these perfect little shops.  As she herself points out, it’s not the perfect places that are the most interesting, it’s the ones where things go wrong. 

Also I suspect her son isn’t nearly as adorable as he’s portrayed, but that’s a forgivable weakness. 

I admired her descriptions of high-end cuisine but appreciated much more her descriptions of things like sushi and Korean barbecue. I actually don’t enjoy really nice restaurants because they just make me uncomfortable (to my husband’s chagrin).  Reichl’s lengthy descriptions of things like foie gras, consommé, etc. got less interesting after a while.  But there is something nice about dining vicariously through her writing. I can’t taste the food – but I also don’t have to get dressed up and sit in a stuffy restaurant for hours on end. 

I listened to the audiobook, read by Bernadette Dunne. I thought I was listening to Reichl herself, since the book cover on my audiobook clearly says “Read by Author”. Either way it didn’t matter, this is an excellent audiobook because with each disguise, she takes on a different voice, so that made the listening more fun. The only downside is this book comes with recipes, so you have to listen to those too.  But the recipes sounded great, and surprisingly easy to make, so now I want to get a cookbook of hers. Another nice thing about this as an audiobook, it rarely required a lot of concentration, because you could miss something and it really didn’t impact the flow of the story. 

I found Save Me the Plums more interesting because I found the magazine industry fascinating, and the writing was a little more mature and less repetitive.  But if you want more of a restaurant/food focus, you might enjoy this one more.

If I continue to read backwards, then my next book will be Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table.  I’ll put that on my list for next year. 

Note: I read this book for the Nonfiction Reader 2021 Challenge. This is one of three food-focused memoirs I read this year: Eat a Peach by David Chang, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.

  5 comments for “Review: Garlic and Sapphires, the Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

  1. November 12, 2021 at 3:02 pm

    Really enjoyed this comprehensive and thoughtful review. I really enjoyed Save Me the Plums, but was on the fence about this one. I think I got what I wanted from your review!

  2. WendyW
    November 13, 2021 at 4:29 pm

    Sounds so good. I’ve always wondered what a restaurant critic’s life would be like.

  3. November 14, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    The ideas around dressing differently and being treated differently sound fascinating. I don’t like posh restaurants, either, I don’t like fancy food and get confused by it all, and this upsets my husband, too! So I think I’d skim bits of this if I read it.

  4. November 14, 2021 at 3:57 pm

    It’s interesting how she tried to go in disguise to get the same treatment as everyone else. I read about this problem in Grace Dent’s Hungry earlier this year (excellent book) and she said that even if she always booked under false name, the restaurant would one way or another still find out it was her and be prepared for her visit even before she arrived. So I guess it isn’t that easy. I quite like food focused memoirs and have Crying in H Mart on my wish list.

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