Garlic and Sapphires

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth ReichlGarlic and Sapphires

In Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl wrote about her tenure as the restaurant critic for The New York Times.  She quickly learned that when she arrived at Tavern on the Green, Windows on the World, or Daniel, all stops were pulled out for her, as happened one evening at Le Cirque, when the owner said to her, “”The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready”.  In order to experience these restaurants as the average diner would, Reichl assumed a series of elaborate disguises, complete with wigs, makeup, and credit cards bearing her assumed name.  As Molly, Chloe, Brenda, Betty, Emily and Miriam, the service and food she received varied considerably, and her reviews highlighted these differences.  Food and undercover detective work all in one book?  My inner Nancy Drew loved it.

A few times while reading this book, I was struck by just how different New York is from Seattle.  Not necessarily better or worse, but certainly a different culture.  How we eat, and what, seem so different. 

Do we have restaurants here where snobbery reigns supreme, tables are assigned based on what one is wearing, and dealing with the staff is a pissing match?  Maybe, but I’ve never been to one.  And frankly, it sounds like a drag to have to engage in a game of one-upmanship with a wine steward. 

I remember standing outside The Metropolitan Grill in downtown Seattle one night after work with Michael and a group of his friends. All of us were professionals in our thirties and forties, and we had just finished our workdays at insurance company, bank, or law offices.  It was a Friday, as in casual Friday, so we were all dressed in jeans.  The Met is an upscale steak place, and I saw a lot of suits and pearls when I looked through the steamy window.  A brief debate about whether we were too underdressed to get a table was cut off by Lian, who tossed his head defiantly, and said, “What the hell are you talking about?  We could be internet millionaires!  Follow me.”  He flung open the door and literally strutted into the restaurant with the rest of us in his wake, and requested a table for six.  We were immediately seated at a round table in a front window, and got great food and impeccable service.  And that’s Seattle–anyone really could be an internet millionaire, or not. 

Then there was the foie gras.  Reichl described many luscious meals in the course of her book, several of which featured foie gras or veal, about which she rhapsodized without the slightest hint of guilt.  I have tasted foie gras (accidentally! I swear, and only once!), and I must admit that it was delicious.  But in Seattle, we just don’t enjoy eating animals that have suffered for our pleasure, or at least hardly anyone admits it.  I imagine that if this book had been written by a Seattle author, she would have digressed into an explanation of the provenance of the veal (ethically raised at a local organic farm) or offered an excuse for the foie gras (I had to eat it, I’m a restaurant critic).

Reichl didn’t pull too many punches when describing the people she interacted with, especially her coworkers.  She disclaimed.  Names were changed.  But still!  Take this description of her editor, Myron: “The Weekend editor was a dumpy little man who wore his gray hair pulled into a ponytail, bit his fingernails to the quick, and dressed in varying shades of brown…He was pleasant enough, in his own tedious fashion, but like many of the minor editors he secretly resented the critics and reporters in his charge.  He took his revenge by cultivating a personal aroma so ferocious that everyone on the third floor routinely plotted alternate routes by his desk.”  Ouch!  The Seattle girl in me was simultaneously amused and a little horrified.  We keep the passive firmly in front of the aggressive here. 

To give Reichl full credit, however, she turned an equally ruthless spotlight on herself.  After a dinner at which Reichl portrayed herself as bragging and unpleasant, she unflinchingly reported the following conversation with her husband:  “‘I couldn’t stay and watch what you were doing.  I hate it when you pretend to be that person.’  ‘What person?’  [she] asked.  ‘The Restaurant Critic of the New York Times.  The Princess of New York.  Ms.-I know I am right about food and don’t argue with me.  Take your pick.’… ‘Last night this line from T.S. Eliot kept running through my head.  It’s from the Four Quartets.  ‘Garlic and sapphires in the mud…’ I remembered that when you got into this it was almost a spiritual thing with you.  You love to eat, you love to write, you love the generosity of cooks and what happens around the table when a great meal is served.  Nothing that went on last night had anything to do with that.’”

All in all, this book was highly enjoyable, and offered a fascinating glimpse into a different lifestyle, perhaps even a different world-the New York food scene. 


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