Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Is the waiter serving Ruth Reichl or her alter ego Brenda? Or maybe it’s Chloe?


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ELIZABETH WEISS MCGOLERICK, the owner of Weiss Words, is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader in Germantown, MD. She is sustained by ginger ale, strawberries, and 63% couverture.

October 2006

Product Reviews / Best Reads / Memoirs, Biographies & Anthologies

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life Of A Critic In Disguise

By Ruth Reichl


If you could invite one former food critic to dinner, who would it be? Ruth Reichl would top many lists, but after reading Garlic and Sapphires you might have a difficult time deciding just which version of Reichl you want as your companion for the evening. The latest lip-smacking volume from the editor in chief of Gourmet magazine is an un-put-down-able, gastronomic adventure through the “changing” eyes of an educated eater.

This volume takes readers through Reichl’s escapades during her tenure as the food critic of The New York Times. In a foodie city like Manhattan, there is no way for the epicure-in-residence to deny her existence—everyone knows who she is and what she looks like—but Reichl managed to find ways to hide the most recognizable parts of herself, and, she discovered, her personality.

As always, Reichl’s scrumptious descriptions of the fine victuals to which she is treated will make mouths water. But it’s not only her magical descriptions of everything from linguine to truffles, salmon to bison. Through her fine phrasing, Reichl never fails to remind the attentive, food-loving reader to slow down, taste, enjoy and savor. Her imagery makes you feel like you’re actually sitting in the restaurants and experiencing her daydreams bite by bite. She makes you want to eat out and eat everything, even the delicacies that might not normally strike your fancy.

As well as an exploration of the food, establishments and wait staff of the Big Apple, Garlic and Sapphires is Reichl’s loose psychological treatment of the enviable and least desirable incarnations of herself. In order to dine without being recognized, she dons different disguises. Some of the most memorable and inviting moments are when her character is altered through clothes and wigs in the dressing room, with poses in the mirror. Reichl lets you in on the transformations that turned her into meek Molly, alluring Chloe, lovable Brenda and even her mother. Each character is infectious. Sometimes the author liked who she became, and sometimes she didn’t. Were these women her alter egos? Perhaps. Were they living inside her just waiting for the moment Reichl would let them out to taste a few gourmet meals? That’s the question Reichl lightly explores while offering up her enticing reviews of arguably some of the best restaurants in the country.

Reichl allows herself to become dowdy, flirty, unnoticeable and full of life. An act such as the one she successfully pulls off over and over again, as “Molly,” “Chloe” or “Brenda” forays to a restaurant, would make one think that Reichl is comfortable enough in her own skin to become someone else. But this is not necessarily the case—and it’s surprising to the writer. “The only thing I can compare it to is being so absorbed in a novel that you disappear into the fiction and feel emotions that are not your own. I turned into someone else. It was stunningly unnerving.”

You want to keep reading and reading—for the food, for the acting, for the sheer pleasure of it. Most of all, Reichl makes you want to dress up and attempt to get away with embodying another “person” for just one night. She keeps the inter-office politics of The New York Times to a minimum and lets the reader enjoy the soul of the book—the food mecca of New York City and all it has to offer. Actual restaurant reviews are included along with recipes of dishes relevant to her journeys.

The act of eating takes on new meaning when you look at it through someone else’s eyes. The food writing queen, the countess of cuisine never fails to treat readers to her experienced palate. But this time she’s offering up a whole cast of characters, which makes the journey through the pages of this book that much more pleasurable. In the end, Reichl succeeds in conveying that the best dinner an eater can have is one with an adoring companion, even if you’re wearing a wig and are, well, not quite yourself.

Four stars to Ruth Reichl.


  • Garlic and Sapphires
  • List price $24.95, Amazon price $16.47 (click on link above to purchase)
  • 352 pages
  • Penguin Press
  • 2005


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