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Book Beat

A review of "Garlic and Sapphires", by Ruth Reichl.

Once in a great while during the reading of an enjoyable book, a strong passage is encountered which obliges the reader to stop and take a breath, unable to turn the page past the words that seem to jump out at you like the impassioned advice of a close friend. Often, this subtle literary discovery serves to breathe life into the entire book, giving it life and personal significance - it is what every writer wants their reader to experience. In Ruth Reichl’s new book, “Garlic and Sapphires”, this point is reached, during my reading at least, just after the author received feedback from her glowing four-star review of Daniel Boulud’s “Daniel” restaurant. She begins to realize for the first time that her alter ego, Brenda, had crossed the threshold from fantasy to her professional and personal life and was becoming her, or perhaps vice versa. She says, “Rereading the review, I saw what had happened. Ruth did not write the review, Brenda did.”

Brenda was one of Ms. Reichl’s cleverly designed personalities, complete with wig, full costume, and life story, and created for the purpose of remaining anonymous while she wafted into well-heeled New York restaurants such as Le Bernardin, Lespinasse, and Tavern on the Green, to judge their cuisine. Her occupation was a transvestite’s dream job, dressing up as a flamboyant eccentric one evening, and an invisible elderly woman the next, and in the process eating better meals than most royalty might enjoy. Every child who dresses up every year at Halloween as someone else eventually grows up and surrenders this silly practice to maturity, yet secretly entertains the occasional yearning to become someone else, even if just for an evening. But as the author found out, one needs to be careful what we desire, especially when the lines blur between our real persona and the character that you create. Ms. Reichl was destined to make this type of discovery after years being the New York Times food critic and dressing up as her mother, a poor old lady, a vicious socialite, and my personal favorite, a cab-stopping Marilyn Monroe hottie type.

I couldn’t help thinking that nearly everyone might benefit from the Cinderella-like experience of becoming someone else for an evening. In doing so one may find out who we are, perhaps by discovering who we do not want to be. In between the funny stories and great reviews, its impossible to miss the lessons learned from each character the author creates, and eventually dispenses.

Anyone who is interested in stories about food, and stories about New York, will surely be delighted with the combination of the two, presented thoughtfully in this book. Especially when Ms. Reichl, dressed up as “Molly”, prances into Le Cirque for the first of many adventures there, including several where she left her anonymity at home. And since we are all really a child at heart, who among us wouldn’t be entertained by these stories, especially with Ms. Reichl’s wit and storytelling abilities enhancing every episode. And although the last quarter of the book loses some of its early sparkle and energy (almost as if her agent begged her to save some juicy stories for her next book), what remains is well worth the twenty five dollars it will cost to find out what life is like as the New York Times food critic. But the real surprise is that for the same price we get to find out what life is like as many other people as well, recognizable characters that resemble people all of us know.

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