In honor of Ruth Reichl’s upcoming appearance in Sacramento as part of the California Lecture Series, I am providing a review of the book that made me a food writer: Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.
I first stumbled across this book in an airport several years ago. Bored with the nonfiction book I had packed, and facing a long delay, I headed to the airport bookstore for something more spirited. The pickings were slim, but Garlic and Sapphires stood out. I didn’t imagine myself the type of person who would devour every word written by a food critic. To me, such people belonged to a group of pretentious elites. I’m a practical cook. I use coupons when I eat out. I’m passionate about food, but how could I ever relate to a food critic? Didn’t they dine in exclusive restaurants eating nothing but caviar and champagne?
Yet, the book jacket of Garlic and Sapphires seemed to present something different. It promised the story of a critic who hid behind disguises in the hopes of being treated like a “regular” customer, maybe even a customer like me. It promised laughs. This was just the sort of light reading I needed.
With the swipe of my credit card, little did I know that my life was about to change.
With one turn of the page, I was immediately hooked by Garlic and Sapphires. This was not the story of a highfalutin food snob. Instead, it was the story of a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. She took me with her to her new job at the New York Times, where she was at times timid. She took risks as a female in a traditionally male profession. She went to great pains to hide her position of authority as an important food critic in order to reveal the treatment of ordinary people in the city’s finest restaurants. She even ate in (gasp) ethnic restaurants off the five-star circuit—a new twist for the paper.
To my great surprise, I found myself wholly immersed in every word of her food reviews. When she described taking a bite of sushi, I could feel the sting of wasabi on my tongue. When she ate a piece of steak, my mouth watered. And I’m a vegetarian!
Reichl’s keen ability to transfer food’s flavor to the pages of a book and then straight onto your palette astounds. No other writer possesses this mouth-watering ability. Her zeal for food and for life leaps off every page. Similarly, her ability to draw you in, using food as an anchor for more meaningful stories about family, friends, and profession, leaves the reader hungry for more.
Garlic and Sapphires is the story of a woman making ethical choices as she bravely transforms the field of food writing. Her culinary tales act as condiment, bringing zest and depth to the book. One of my favorite vignettes shares an intimate moment between Reichl and her young son as they stir together the ingredients for a simple cake. That scene reveals the deeply personal relationships Reichl communicates to her reader through food, and her very unpretentious approach.
Through this book, my own zeal for writing was reawakened. As a young girl, I always told my mom I would grow up to be a writer. Yet soon after college, I chose another path. The writing I performed at work held a much more standard function. It never sparked a fire in my belly as the words of Ruth Reichl did.
When I finished reading Garlic and Sapphires, I bought Reichl’s other memoires. After reading Tender at the Bone, I put the book down and opened my laptop. For the first time since high school, I began writing from a place of passion—and I haven’t stopped.
If you want a taste of this inspiration, Ruth Reichl is coming to Sacramento on March 26. For $100, you can join her for a Garlic and Sapphires reception at Grange Restaurant & Bar. Though I admit it’s a steep price, I also believe that if you’re passionate about food, this might be the best $100 you’ll ever spend.