On the surface, restaurant and food critic Ruth Reichl’s third novel Garlic and Sapphires appears to be merely a catalogue of events – a New York Times restaurant critic going from restaurant to restaurant, expounding on the assets and misfortunes of each, like reading a collection of her reviews over the years. But really, it’s much more than that. Ruth Reichl is not any old critic.
Reichl revolutionized the way many people see New York and its most notorious restaurants. And while a number of her original reviews are included in the text, it’s the circumstances that made each review that she’s really focused on. It’s in these circumstances, stories really, that you realize this isn’t really about food, or even about writing about food. Amid the innumerable plates of foie gras and glasses of Syrah is a woman’s journey to finding herself.
Reichl began writing for The New York Times in the early nineties, before “Top Chef,” before the new, glassy, surprisingly climbable Times Building on 8th Avenue, before the reinvention of Times Square. Having lived in California for a number of years, her return to New York was one laden with lost memories and the ghosts of her childhood in the Village. In an attempt to capture genuine experiences for her reviews, Reichl built herself a wardrobe of characters that slipped in and out of restaurants less noticeably than she.
It is in these guises that she managed to discover some of her best and worst aspects, the facets of her personality that had dictated her life up to that point. She compares the experience to being “so absorbed in a novel that you disappear into the fiction and feel emotions that are not your own.” True, her characters were all a part of herself, but they each had specific tastes and attitudes, which makes this novel seem a little more populous than it actually is.
In endeavoring to find the truth about restaurants that had previously been ignominiously touted, Reichl manages to find out truths about herself. She’s helped along the way by her husband Michael, her son Nick, and a veritable mixed salad of friends, including other reviewers, chefs, cook-book writers, actors, and also Carol, a secretary at the Times who worked with Ruth until Carol's health made that impossible. As Reichl has been incredibly successful one can imagine that the story, where it ends, ends well – a hint of sadness mixed with the absolute pleasure of the foreseen future.
As her son Nicky says very wisely, at the prospect of consuming a very large and painstakingly crafted lollipop: “I don’t think I will…This isn’t one of those foods that you eat. It’s one of the ones that’s only supposed to make you happy.” The same applies to this book – it’s not the kind of book you pick up and consume for its literary value. It’s one of the ones that’s only supposed to make you happy.