Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Garlic and Sapphires


When a friend pressed Garlic and Sapphires into my hand while browsing Reston Used Books, I was skeptical. I was sure it would be a fine, entertaining read and agreed, thinking it would be a break after the intensity of The Twelve. What I wasn't expecting was the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions this book spurred. More than a simple memoir filled with entertaining stories (and they were entertaining), Reichl unwittingly schooled me in criticism and dipped her toe into the world of social critique.

To be honest, I've never given much thought to what goes into being a restaurant critic. Yes, I assumed there was the eating of the food, and I can't forget the scene from Gilmore Girls when Sookie was trying to track down a critic who had recently reviewed the Inn. This book felt a little like a master class in criticism. As I read of Reichl's four and five visits to the restaurants she reviewed and of all the different dishes and courses she sampled, I felt like such a schmo. Of course she does this. She's a professional with uncompromising standards and would feel the need to account for natural variability and off days. Suddenly, I was ashamed by the meager opinions I've thought to offer after one visit to a restaurant.

Even more fascinating than the peek into the world of a professional critic was the social experiment of embodying different characters as she dined out. Cloaking herself in thrift store costumes ranging from the clunky to the fabulous, she explored different versions of herself and engaging in a bit of self therapy along the way. However, for me, the more telling part of each transformation was the subtle indictment of society and its reactions to the various versions of her. Reichl's discomfort became my own as stark class lines were drawn in the sand.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention what readers of her Times reviews have known for years. The woman has an adventurous palate and can paint an evocative picture of food. My relationship with Asian food has always been one of fear and skepticism (I eat sushi at a restaurant who names their pieces Hot Hippy and G.I. Jane), but Reichl's loving treatment of Korean food and other fare has me wanting to open my mind and give it another go.

Definitely an older title worth picking up.

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