Many people dream about being paid to visit fancy restaurants and write about them. Ruth Reichl, former New York Times food critic, details the pleasures and pitfalls of holding such a prominent job in her memoir Garlic and Sapphires. The book focuses on her biggest problem: how can you give an accurate restaurant review when you're recognized? As she notes in the first review, who you are determines the quality of food and service in a restaurant.
So with the help of friends, Ruth creates elaborate characters for reviewing restaurants, going beyond simple wigs, clothes, and jewelry to create back stories and personalities for each woman. She reveals that if you're a high school teacher named "Molly," you might be seated after a long wait in the bar in a smoky corner, even though you requested a non-smoking table. If you're a famous food critic, on the other hand, you'll be told when you show up 45 minutes early for your reservations that "The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready." There's plenty of humor throughout such as when she takes the bus with her son when she's in the character of an older woman. A man offers her his seat and her son loudly declares, "Mommy, that man thought you were old!"
The book details the restaurant experience of the characters (Molly, Miriam, Chloe, Brenda, Betty, and Emily) and of herself undisguised, followed by the newspaper's review and simple recipes for dishes like Roasted Rhubarb and Spaghetti Carbonara.
Mixed in with the descriptions of restaurants and food are astute observations about the business world and the problems of fame. "When people flatter you constantly it is very tempting to think that you deserve it," Ruth notes. There are also plenty of interactions with her coworkers and family. I found her conversations with her young son especially charming. When she finds a large handmade lolipop for him, for example, he calls it the "most beautiful thing on earth" but decides not to eat it. "This isn't one of those food that you eat. It's one of the ones that's only supposed to make you happy."
This book is a quick, fun read. Even if you've never dreamed about being a restaurant critic, I bet you've wondered what it would be like to be someone else for day. It's fascinating to watch Ruth learn that every character is not a completely separate person, but an exaggeration of her best—and worst—selves.