Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
Ruth Reichl (Penguin Books, 2006)
Sometimes, you're the last to know about your own life. In 1993, while she was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Ruth Reichl got a call from the New York Times trying to lure her back East. The Times already knew her work, and they knew she'd say yes. The department secretary knew. Her journalist husband arranged with his employer for a spot in their New York bureau. She grudgingly agreed to a day of interviews; still thinking she wasn't interested, she was free to say what she really thought, which made them want her all the more. And really–she'd have been nuts to say no.
As soon as she said yes, she had a new problem: her fame preceded her. Her picture was posted at the waiters's stations in all the best places, with bonuses for spotting her. This could be delightful: "And then fireworks began shooting across the table: black truffles and white ones, foie gras, lobster, turbot, venison. The play of flavors was a symphony, as if we were the only people in the restaurant and fifty chefs were cooking just to please us. Each dish was rushed to the table the instant it was ready; each was served at the peak of perfection." But since that's not an experience most people can ever have, it's not the experience she was trying to review.
The solution was wigs, or rather, personas. An old friend of her late mother sent her to the right consignment shop, and got her a makeup artist. Ruth became Molly, a wealthy nonentity from the Midwest, someone who could blend in to the point where the service at Le Cirque was actively bad. This was an interesting sociological study: Can a dull, poor person get a decent table? At what apparent age does a woman disappear? Or, on the other end of the power scale, why do the editors of the Times like to be seen with her?
Even more, as she tried on different looks, Reichl found herself engaged by the psychological implications. When she wore her mother's jewelry and clothing, she understood her perhaps better than ever before. "I felt my mother's joy as I swept up the stairs, breathing in the affluent air. By the time I arrived at the top I was seeing it all as she would, thrilling to the chains rippling seductively across the windows and the deep, private underwater feel of the room."
Plenty of things about the New York of twenty-five years ago seem both familiar and strange: smoking sections in restaurants! Pay phones! The Trump Tower as merely a gaudy temple of excess! The era of classic French restaurants was bumbling to a close, and Reichl sought out ethnic enclaves that seemed bold and new (at least for the Times.) But the gulf between the rich and the poor already yawned like the Grand Canyon, with the same blindness on the part of the wealthy that we see today.
Reichl's predecessor as critic was somehow still glowering around the office, giving evidence that the job had a limited life span. She was missing too many dinners with her young son. And,by 1998, she started to run out of faces. A few of her later personas were the worst kind of customers— the peevish, the demanding, or the snobbish, occasionally to the horror of her friends who went out with her.
Once again, blessedly, the powers that be had a better plan for her than she had for herself. Offered the editorship of Gourmet, she had the good sense to say yes. Time being what it is, you probably can't go back to these restaurants, and you probably wouldn't want to. But the recipes Reichl includes may count as compensation, and the writing itself is delicious.
Any Good Books, July 2019