Reviewing Ruth Reichl’s Trio of Food Memoirs

…We all become actors, to some extent, when we go out to eat. Every restaurant is a theater, and the truly great ones allow us to indulge in the fantasy that we are rich and powerful. When restaurants hold up their end of the bargain, they give us the illusion of being surrounded by servants intent on ensuring our happiness and offering extraordinary food.

But even modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality; that is part of their charm. When you walk through the door, you are entering neutral territory where you are free to be whoever you choose for the duration of the meal.

–Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise 

Ruth Reichl has made a name for herself reviewing restaurants, most notably as the New York Times’ chief restaurant critic in the ‘90s. While there, she made reviewing a literary art form, weaving stories into her reviews, adding quotes from patrons and staff, incorporating history and sensory fun. Looking back, her reviews do not seem controversial, but she was up against a lot of history, even enduring a smear campaign from her bitter predecessor, Bryan Miller, which ended up on Page Six.

In an job interview with the paper, she condemns their food coverage, telling top editors that their reviews are “useful guides for the people who actually eat in the restaurants you review. You shouldn’t be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the ones who wish they could.” The Times, for many years, focused only those fancy French restaurants that defined class and culinary sophistication in this country, but these were the types of restaurants, like Lutece, that were patronized by the rich and powerful; most people would rarely, if ever, get the chance to try it. As eating out became more like going to the movies instead of the opera, restaurant criticism should reflect that trend, Reichl notes, and become just as much a democratizing force.

Already well-known in the food world in the early ‘90s, Reichl was warned on a flight to New York City that “Every restaurant in town has your picture pinned to the bulletin board, next to the specials of the day.” Panicked, Reichl realized that there was only one way to do her job: go in disguise. So she became Molly, a retired high school teacher from Birmingham, Michigan. The New York Times’ restaurant critic was the most powerful position in restaurant criticism, and her word could make or break an establishment. Critics were expected to dine out no less than three times, often more, with companions, sampling a range of food at different times, testing for consistency and quality. Being discovered was ruinous, because it often lead to extraordinary service, comped dishes, freebies, and extras, like plumper strawberries.

Reichl’s infamous Le Cirque experience is recounted in the third volume of her memoirs, Garlic and Sapphires. As Molly, she and her middle-aged companion endured rude service, waiting at the bar, watching the waiters hope that they would leave, before being seated in a tight corner in the back of the restaurant, near an alcove where the menus were kept. As herself, she was treated to this gem: “The King of Spain is waiting at the bar, but your table is ready.”

Garlic and Sapphires traces her years at the New York Times, where she subjects herself to a number of wigs and odd outfits, transforming herself into all sorts of women, all with backstories and unique personalities. Unlike her two previous memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, this one is focused exclusively on restaurants and her career. Columns from her tenure are reprinted here—most are just labeled “Restaurants”, a little too simple; not all have titles. She inherited a star system that is no longer in place, and readers relive many of the meals behind the review.

Reading through the books, you really get a sense of how much the world has changed in the last fifty years. In Tender at the Bone, all the included recipes seem very unhealthy. There’s lots of eggs and butter and cream, and the recipes, many complicated, use lots of hard-to-find ingredients. They also scream French and fatty; lots of meat and dessert. The recipes in Garlic and Sapphires are familiar, easy, and as such, much likelier to be made (I tried the first one, New York Style Cheesecake, as a birthday gift).

What Americans actually ate has also changed considerably. Reichl was lucky to grow up in New York City, with Jewish roots, and so was exposed to a lot of food that didn’t become mainstream until decades later. Outside of such cities, Americans ate a lot of steak, a lot of bland, nutritionally-deficient food. The horrors of midcentury Midwestern cooking — chicken, steak, Rice-a-Roni — are reinforced when she meets her future husband’s parents for the first time. They cook her a “fancy” meal: cottage cheese-filled canned peaches on iceberg lettuce, and “chow mein”: canned beans sprouts, canned mushrooms, bouillon cubes, and molasses. Ugh.

But her life, too, encapsulates this change: brought up in Greenwich Village in the ‘50s, she was surrounded by butchers, bakeries, and other “specialty” shops; many of those have disappeared by the time she returns thirty years later. Her mother, educated in Europe, ships her off to a Montreal boarding school to learn French when she is a preteen, and she spends her high school years in Connecticut, skipping class, drinking and cooking while her parents stay in New York. Rebelling, she goes to school in Michigan, where she becomes a hippie, majoring in sociology and attending sit-ins and teach-ins, learning about Moroccan and Guyanese cooking. Upon graduating, with nothing else to do, she gets a master’s degree in art history at the same university. Who does that now without a lot of foresight and planning?

But these are only some of the ways in which we see how far the world has changed. Nowadays food is its own genre, and there are millions of foodies, professional and amateur, who follow the field. With movies like Food, Inc, what we eat has become politicized. “Food porn” is its own subgenre, and pictures both disgusting and beautiful can be found anywhere on the web. Chefs are superstars, and professional eating is a job, one that can lead to fame. The Food Network and the Travel Channel bring cuisines, styles, and food as entertainment to the masses. Midwestern suburbia has access to heretofore ethnic and specialty ingredients. No longer is eating out a province of the rich. Even the act of reviewing restaurants, thanks to the Internet, has changed, since it’s virtually impossible to stay incognito, as Columbia Journalism Review’s recent history on food writing recounts.

Ruth Reichl is incredibly blessed. Her story reads like nothing more than that she happened to be the recipient of a lot of luck—she was always at the right place at the right time. As one friend puts it, she was born to be a restaurant critic, and that is certainly evident in her background. She was cooking at an early age, more as self-preservation than anything else. Her mother, Miriam, quite a character, is “taste-blind and unafraid of rot” and Ruth grew up warning all guests—and there were a lot—which food was unsafe to eat. Her mother, in a story memorable recounted in Tender at the Bone and in the recent published Not Becoming My Mother, poisoned twenty-six people at an engagement party she threw for her son (which she also turned into a benefit for Unicef.) She would buy anything exotic, throw random stuff together, and call it a meal. It didn’t matter if the sour cream was green.

Reichl spent a summer as a camp counselor in a small island off the coast of France. Unlike American health camps, which are highly structured and are strongly linked to losing weight, French camps had few rules, among them that campers would shower once a week and that everyone had to eat everything on the plate. Campers were expected to gain weight. Reichl was free to explore the island.

She meets her first husband living in Ann Arbor when he comes looking for her friend, the previous occupant. They move in the next day, marry young, and after a short stint in New York City, they move to Berkeley, where they are part of the burgeoning local and organic food movement. There they live in a commune with ten other people for ten years, their bedroom smaller than most dorm rooms. They stick out because they are married, but they live the life of a poor hippie. They have no credit cards, very little to their name, and they disdain bourgeois trappings like dishwashers (energy inefficient) and meat (too high on the food chain and “an egregious example of the vertical integration of agribusiness”). They dumpster dive and recycle fanatically, living on grain, millet and bland vegan products. She moves up the ranks, working in a number of restaurants, notably The Swallow, before becoming a food critic for New West (later renamed California) magazine, then moving to the Los Angeles Times. In Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, she meets and becomes friends with some big names: Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck.

Her second memoir, Comfort Me with Apples, describes her “tumultuous years” in California, the dissolution of her first marriage, and her subsequent affairs and battle with infertility. Here is where most of her traveling is done: whenever her life is a mess, she takes a trip, and so readers are exposed to a storybook affair in Paris, feastiaries in Thailand, and an international mystery in China. In Tender, it’s a whirlwind honeymoon in Europe, with an extended lag in Crete; a Tunisian tour with local men before jet-setting to Algiers; and of course, Paris. Obviously, the books are filled with long ago beautiful meals, lovely wine, and interesting concoctions.

One criticism of the books, especially in the first two, is that Reichl is not very specific with time. I consistently overestimate her age, partly because milestones in her life happen earlier than expected (she is finished with her undergrad degree by the time she is twenty, for example). It is hard, at times, to figure out if it’s the late ‘60s or early ‘70s in her book, how long she has been in a particular setting or situation. This matters less in Garlic and Sapphires, mostly because her life is settled then, and the entirety of that book revolves around one job and setting. Many readers might not care about the specificity of dates; indeed, Reichl comes from a long line of embellishers, and her books, being memoirs, are not factual recitations of events.

At times Reichl can be amazingly open—as when she reveals that she took a pay cut to work at the New York Times, starting out at $82,000, in Garlic and Sapphires, or when describing her sex life inComfort Me With Apples. Her parents figure prominently in the first two, but her son, Nick, now twenty-one, appears often in the last. He is sweet, and adores his mom. It is her family that prompts her decision to leave the New York Times for Gourmet magazine, which she helmed until the magazine’s departure a few months ago.

What’s also fun, besides the meals and her amazing experiences, is seeing how the Times ran, especially in the ‘90s, where it was considered a snake pit, a completely different and unfriendly beast to the Los Angeles Times, where Reichl worked for nine years in the eighties. I was delighted to discover that Reichl dislikes Tavern on the Green (which recently closed) as much as I do, even though we ate there a good thirteen years apart.

Reichl has her own websiteTwitter feed, and currently works on Gourmet’s television show. Her books are fun and tasty, and the recipes certainly are mouth-watering. I still have no idea what foie gras is, though.

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