To any food critic, anonymity is key. But food critic (and current Gourmet magazine editor) Ruth Reichl took that maxim to its limit in 1993 when she became The New York Times' head food know-it-all. Realizing that her mug shot was pasted up in every ritzy kitchen from SoHo to Brooklyn, she simply became a nobody. Her latest memoir, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, focuses on Reichl's deliciously rocky six-year tenure as the "most powerful critic in the world" and see-saws back and forth from Reichl's fragrant restaurant memories to her original NYT reviews, with handfuls of home recipes sprinkled throughout.
Reichl names her chapters for the fictitious characters she created to navigate some of New York's poshest dining rooms, from Le Cirque to Union Pacific, undetected. There's Betty Jones, the doormat house frau; her own mother, Miriam; and Chloe, the lisping blonde femme fatale to Reichl's real-life blowsy brunette New York attitude. The book is a frothy mix of juicy New York Times office drama, a bit of culinary cloak and dagger and full-blown Big Apple food romance. And at its core, Sapphires is really about how different a dish can taste depending on who's eating it. But in Reichl's case, though, there's just no disguising good taste.
Bite Club caught up with the James Beard Award-winning author by phone last week in New York while Reichl prepared for her national book tour. She'll be in Portland Friday night.
Bite Club: Who did you write this book for?
Ruth Reichl: When I wrote [my first memoir] Tender at the Bone, the first editor said, "Your childhood? Who wants to know about your childhood? All anybody wants to know is what it's like to be a restaurant critic for The New York Times." When I'd go out on book tours, the one thing everyone wanted to know about was the disguises. Betty was my most useful disguise. She could slip in and out of restaurants so undetected that I was able to use her for years. Being her was eye-opening: how easy it is to be an invisible person in America. I think I write so that she gets seen. So "the Bettys" have a voice.
I love how the book flips between restaurant memories and reviews like an old love affair.
I thought it'd be fun for people who care about this kind of thing to see the process and then see the finished product. To be honest, I intended to have more reviews in the book, but The New York Times wanted to charge me so much money [for reprint rights] I took half of them out.
In Sapphires your husband, Michael, actually says to you, "I hate it when you pretend to be that person, the food critic for The New York Times." Just how seductive is that disguise?
Being the princess of New York is really fun. People literally say, "I read you religiously." And you know, the notion of becoming a religion [Reichl laughs]. It's not that difficult to allow yourself to believe that. It is incredibly seductive to believe that you aren't just you but that you are the voice of The New York Times.
Fast-forwarding 10 years, with the rise of message boards like egullet.com and chowhound.com, it seems like everyone is a critic. What effect does that have on the professionals?
I feel so blessed that I predated the Internet. I look now and there's a [NYT critic Frank] Bruni blog. There's some incredibly smart young woman who makes fun of him on a weekly basis. They would have done that to me. But it's wonderful. You can Google anything. Think of how much time I would have saved trying to find the right Chinese restaurant.
You write about one of your worst dining companions, David "The Food Warrior" Shapiro. What is so wrong with food assessors like him?
Food is the most sensual pleasure. [Warriors] manage to divert everything wonderful about food and turn it into something clinical. To think of food as something that you rate, as opposed to something that draws us together, is deeply troubling. One of the things I like about being at Gourmet instead being of a restaurant critic is that I get to talk about food in the way I think is most important, which is that we cook for our family, cook for our friends, pay attention to one another. I don't really care much about what is on the table. What I care about is who's around the table.
So what do you want to eat?
The recipes that are in my book are extremely simple. That's really what I cook. I'm not the world's greatest cook. I cooked all day to welcome home [my son and husband]. I made a bolognese sauce, I made a chicken curry from the magazine, I baked a vanilla cake. I make the world's best down-to-earth food.
Sounds like you make it for people you love, rather than make it to make it.
Absolutely. They were gone for two weeks, and I ate cereal. If I'm by myself, what's the point?
You write about sneaking a greasy doughnut into the NYT office every morning. What's your favorite anti-critic food now?
I am addicted to onion rings. And the guy who makes them down here at the Gourmet cafeteria knows it, so every time I walk past him he hands me a few."
You talk about the influence of your family on your tastes in Tender. What did becoming the most important critic in the world teach you about food?
When I was at the Times, my favorite letter I ever got was from a man who told me he had open-heart surgery and he was no longer allowed to eat red meat. He asked would I please review more steakhouses, cause the only time he got to enjoy steak anymore was when I took him with me. I learned that there's real value in trying to write well enough about food that people can actually taste it.
What was your goal when you took on Gourmet?
Our mission is to get more people cooking. One way to help was to give people more really good, really quick recipes. And the other was to talk about the politics of food, the ecology of food. We did the articles about salmon farming...genetic modification of food, the kinds of issues that were not considered the proper features for an epicurean magazine. Eating is a seriously political act, and to put that into the magazine has been seriously satisfying, too.
You sound fired up. Is the politics of food something you'd like to explore in a book?
I do indeed think about it. I'm really concerned that I think we're in grave danger as a nation of developing a two-tier food system. We really need vigilant that we don't create a situation where rich people eat animals that have never seen a factory and vegetables that have never been sprayed, when we're living in a time when you could go to the South Bronx and hold up an orange and half the kids in the class wouldn't know what it was, because they think orange juice grows in boxes.
Do you still don the disguises now and then?
No more. It's over. Well, CBS asked me if I would do Miriam on camera. I did, and I ended up having a severe allergic reaction to the makeup. I was in agony. I had to go and get a Cortisone shot. It was terrifying. It was like my real self saying, "This is over!"
That's where all interviews should end, right, with a trip to the emergency room? Well, I'm gratified that I got to talk to the real Ruth and not Miriam or Chloe. Or maybe I talked to all of them at one time or another.
Yeah, I think you did.
reads from her newest memoir,
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