After reading Tender at the Bone, I was looking forward to more of Ruth Reichl. Garlic and Sapphires was not only a disappointment, it was as if a completely different person had written it. It is ironic that in a book about disguises, Reichl herself was unrecognizable. Far from the funny, sensitive, and sincere person she was in her first book, Reichl had transformed herself into a self-absorbed snob loaded with enough hypocrisy to sink a ship.
This book covers Reichl's stint as the New York Times chief restaurant critic. Although she accepts the position, she has reservations about the elitist implications of the job, and vows to write for the masses--those million readers who can't afford to spend $100 for a meal at a four-star French restaurant. Part of her mission is to expose the poor treatment many of these restaurants heap on the "common man." But in order to accomplish this lofty goal, Reichl must eat in disguise. For if she is recognized as New York's premier restaurant critic, she'll be treated like royalty. (Although this obviously has no bearing on the quality of the food, it has a great deal of bearing on the quality of the experience. Personally, I eat for the food.)
The idea is cute, and for the first few chapters it was fun. But Reichl shows her true colors right from the start when she heaps disdain on a bearded ignoramus (wearing Birkenstocks...unforgivable!) for having the audacity to dip his sushi rice-side down, thereby "ruining" the "clear transparent flavor," the "taut crispness," and the clam that was "almost baroque in its sensuality." (I have yet to meet a sensual or almost baroque clam, but I'll take Reichl's word for it.) Reichl then reminisces about her trip to Japan, in which she is first exposed to the proper way to eat Japanese food. (I'm pretty sure the guy in Birkenstocks could not afford to go to Japan for eating lessons.) In her other encounters with diners at top-notch restaurants Reichl indulges in so much blatant one-up-manship that you simply can't sympathize with her concern for the "simple folk" no matter how much she tries to dress like them. The verbal food fights with the poor guy she picks up in a bar as the vampish Chloe (what's up with THAT??), and with the self-avowed "food warrior" were downright churlish. After proclaiming that there is no right way to eat food, Reichl clearly demonstrates that it's her way or the highway. Even Reichl's portrayals of other diners, who are merely innocent bystanders, are dreadfully stereotyped, sometimes to the point of cruelty. (She assumes that a "loud, brassy blonde," who is disturbing her expensive meal, is a prostitute. Apparently, sitting next to the "masses" isn't nearly as much fun as pretending to write for them.)
Even Reichl's disguises lacked credibility. Reichl's claims that she had an instant personality transformation with each new disguise are simply unbelievable. She BECOMES the 'little people,' taking on their imagined attributes, their voices, their very lives. She comes up with histories for each of the women she invents, and, with just a wig and some makeup, is so amazingly convincing that she can even fool her husband! Either Reichl is schizophrenic, or she takes method acting entirely too seriously. She certainly takes herself too seriously.
If the book had been well written I could have forgiven the snobbery, but, with the exception of one chapter, "The Missionary of the Delicious," in which Reichl was somehow able to get a grip on herself, purple prose abounded. (As her editor I would have crossed out half of her adjectives.) The inclusion of reprints of her published reviews was redundant, and the recipes were mediocre. (There was no clue in these recipes that Reichl was an expert in the kitchen. But, hey, she was writing for the "huddled masses yearning to eat free." What do we know? We can't even dip sushi right.)
If Reichl hadn't been so intent on wallowing in her ego, this book might have had possibilities. She loves food, and she has dined in some truly fabulous restaurants. The fact that most of us can't afford them is irrelevant. She had a duty to go to these marvelous places, enjoy herself to the max, and then take the rest of us with her.