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Spotlight on: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

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

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
-- T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

Former restaurant critic for the New York Times, Ruth Reichl reminisces on her days at the most powerful paper in the United States in her third food-related memoir, Garlic and Sapphires. For some reason, as a reviewer, I like to keep up with other reviewers, and Reichl's book was a joy to read, filled with humor, her love of food, information on the workings of a large newspaper, and a few life lessons.

When Reichl was hired on at the Times, her face was plastered all over the paper before she even arrived in the city to take the job. In a job where anonymity is the key to an objective take on food and service (when the restaurants know you're the critic, they shower you with their best), Reichl knew this was not the way it should be done.

Enter Molly Hollis, the first character created by Reichl (with help from a friend with theatrical experience) to take her place in the restaurant seat. Molly is not the person the expensive restaurants expect to be serving, and they treated her abominably, while Reichl, on a subsequent visit as herself, got star treatment, resulting in a double review: one from Reichl's own viewpoint and one from Molly's. (The original reviews are included after each series of meals.) Past critics lambast Reichl for demeaning the job, but the average New Yorker feels he has finally found a critic for the people.

This brilliant idea is only the beginning of Reichl's adventures in Garlic and Sapphires, which include taking her family on a tour of steakhouses, trying to get her friend to try sushi, confronting a self-proclaimed "food warrior," and looking for good authentic Asian food. In the process Reichl gets a little obsessive with the disguises, and finds out a lot about herself and her family in the process.

The version I "read" was the Books on Tape audiobook, as read by Bernadette Dunne. Dunne's reading flows nicely and she has a lot of personality (I can even forgive her mispronunciation of "geoduck"), but I believe, by using this format, I missed out on trying the recipes included in the book, as it's hard to cook while driving a car. Nevertheless, Garlic and Sapphires was a complete joy from start to finish, even if it did kill my fantasy of one day becoming a restaurant critic. To go by Reichl's experiences in that seat, I have to conclude that it's probably for the best.

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