Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise – Review

First off, let me say I hate Garlic and Sapphires. Yes, I love the book. But damnit! I gained 10 pounds while listening to the audio book! And that is not one word of a lie. 10 freaking pounds! I mean, if it was a paper edition and I ate the stupid thing I could understand. But it was audio! I just had to sit and listen!

Kelly eats oranges. I however think ketchup should be its own food category.
Kelly eats oranges. I however think ketchup should be its own food category.

Ach. Anyway…

I picked this book as an antidote to Girl Boy Girl, about a woman who dressed as a young man transitioning to become a woman. I’d have enough of the “who am I” melodrama, and wanted something warm and comforting for the cold morning walks to work. How I managed to choose a book about a food critic who dressed up as other women in order to dine in disguise is beyond me.

So, Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, read, according to the audio book cover, by the author. Except within the first 15 seconds we are told it is read by Bernadette Dunn. Maybe that’s Ruth’s real name, maybe it’s another persona of Ruth’s, maybe it’s some hapless professional reader who isn’t getting the credit she deserves for making cooking recipes sound interesting. Not sure.

But what I am sure about is, Ruth loves food. I mean, loves, like

if you love it that much why don’t you marry it?

She loves to eat, she loves to experience eating, she loves restaurants and she loves to share her knowledge about food, which makes Garlic and Sapphires an absolutely enjoyable book.

cover of the book Garlic and Sapphires
cover of the book Garlic and Sapphires

I love books, but just reviewing the plot is not my style: I want to convey what the book actually meant, felt like, changed within me. And with Ruth, just reviewing the food is never enough either. Using snippets of daily life, overheard conversations and passion, she tells you what it is like to actually eat the food, explore the scary-looking restaurants and eat with passion.

Ruth was, for a time, the restaurant critic for the New York Times. Have I mentioned I don’t read the Times? Or restaurant reviews? Unless I need to check the local Board of Health for restaurant health code violations. Anyway, I digress.

The book chronicles her decision to join the Times, her experiences at the restaurants and, most importantly, her decision to wear disguises while doing so. If you ever wanted proof that women, certain kinds of women, are treated differently in restaurants, consider the tales in Garlic and Sapphires.

She would buy wigs and different outfits and then channel her inner hippie/old lady/bitch/fancy-lady while dining at various restaurants. This gave Ruth the opportunity to experience a restaurant as a “real person,” or any number of “real people,” and then as the much-pampered critic; thus she would compare the food, the service, and the guests with whom she dined.

Beer and tacos should also be a food category
Beer and tacos should also be a food category

Many of the book’s chapters take their titles from the characters she became: “Chloe,” “Betty,” and “Brenda.” Brenda remains one of my favourite characters and stories in the book, because she is older and broken down and, average. And trust me, fancy restaurants don’t want older, broken down, average women.

Much more than a book about restaurants, it’s a book about privilege and society, and about the journey Ruth takes to find the pieces of herself in the food she eats and the company she keeps. This is a book about life with food and food with life.


Other Ruth Reichl Books:

  • Mmmmm: A Feastiary (cookbook), (1972)
  • Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (memoir) (1998)
  • Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table (memoir) (2001)
  • Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (memoir) (2005)[5]
  • The Gourmet Cookbook: More Than 1000 Recipes (2006)
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way (2009)
  • Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen (2009)
  • For You, Mom. Finally. (2010; first published under the title Not Becoming My Mother)
  • Delicious! (novel) (2014)
  • My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life (2015)

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