Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Comfort Me with Food Writing

I just finished reading the book Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. This is not a new book; it was published I think in 2005, but somehow I missed it when it first came out. (Yet another victim of the the fourth trimester fog after my son's birth?) I'd been meaning to get to it, but for some reason it kept escaping my notice. Then I read the news that Gourmet magazine was being shut down and it got me thinking about Ruth Reichl again.

I had read both of her previous memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, and loved both of them. It's been long enough ago that I'm vague on the details of either of these books, and could benefit from revisiting them, but I know that Reichl excels at bringing memories of eating to life, and expresses a true passion for food and its place in our experience.
Her books are funny and touching, full of stories about the ridiculous (and often verging on poisonous) dishes her mother made when she was growing up, and Reichl's own adventures with vegetarianism in 1970's California.

Garlic and Sapphires focuses on Reichl's decade long experience as restaurant critic for the New York Times. This is such a high profile job that she realized that she could not have an honest experience at any restaurant if she dined as herself. Therefore, she developed elaborate disguises and alter egos in order to eat as the general public might.

The book is filled with delightful descriptions of meals in what are arguably the best restaurants in the world, and of course this made me happy.

However, what could have been solely a book of bragging about phenomenal dining experiences instead becomes what I think the best memoirs are, an honest and revealing self examination. Each of the characters that Reichl creates is in some ways a reflection of a different aspect of her personality. Along the way, she discovers parts of herself that she wishes could be present more often in her everyday life, as well as disagreeable traits she has let grow far too large. As a reader, I found myself wishing that I too, could escape under a wig for a time to see what it might show me about myself.

Reichl was well known during her stint at the Times for not giving renowned restaurants a pass simply for their reputation. She sought out "ethnic" cuisine before it was hip, and pointed out when service favored only elite patrons. It was very interesting to me to read about the restaurant scene in New York just as the "celebrity chef" phase was beginning.

From what I've read about Reichl as the editor of Gourmet magazine (sadly, I can't say I was a reader or subscriber, and thus, perhaps am complicit in its demise), she brought a similar approach to that icon of the industry, highlighting accessible yet quality cuisine, and encouraging the locavore movement. Reichl, from what I know of her from her writing, cares about food deeply and passionately, yet is no snob. It seems to me that this is exactly what I want in someone who influences trends in restaurants, cooking, and food in general. So, I sincerely wish Ms. Reichl best wishes and success in finding her next endeavor.

P.S. Oh, and speaking of food and celebrity chef culture, any bets on who's going home tonight on Top Chef? Forget the Edward/Jacob debate. I'm on Team Kevin. Anyone who says "I didn't get fat on accident. It was a personal choice" kind of rocks, if you ask me.


mep said...

First off, love, love, love the new header. It rocks! Some changes are brewing at NTB as well (want to have something to show from my semester of teaching).

What a wonderful review of a great memoir. I still haven't checked out Reichl's first two memoirs, but I will. I totally agree with you that she is the type of person I want influencing the food world.

And, of course, I am totally with you on TEAM KEVIN.

Anonymous said...

Stadning in the Atlantic with a little bit of hair? Last I checked I had no hair...great header. Well spent!
As for Top Chef, I hope you don't spoil it for yourself.

Anonymous said...

I seriously meant great header! After I read that again I may have sounded like an idiot....hence standing in the Atlantic...I get it.
Me again

Anonymous said...

Love the header! I am happy with all the Top Chef finalists but Kevin has been so consistent...and a pig tattoo? That's passion my friend. LAP