Sunday, August 14, 2011

What I'm Reading: Garlic and Sapphires

Yes, I know this book has been out forever, and it's been on my reading list for a long time, but somehow I never got around to picking up a copy until a friend offered me hers. Ruth Reichl is sort of a fixture in the food world, but I never had strong opinions about her. Maybe that's why I didn't put her book higher on my priority reading list.

She sort of reminded me of Nigella Lawson. I also waffle about her.

Garlic and Sapphires is about Reichl's adventures as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. My friend suggested it to me when she found out that I was getting a similar job. Smaller media outlet, smaller budget, different criteria ... but the same general idea.

The New York restaurant scene is a world away from where I live, and according to Reichl, it was also very different from her previous reviewer job at the LA Times. In LA, she simply went out to eat. In NYC, she had to don elaborate disguises to keep restaurants from recognizing her.

The interesting thing was that when Reichl put on her costumes, she also adopted the personalities of the characters she created. She became those people, not only to the staff of the restaurants, but also to her dining companions. Some of her characters were likable, and some were less so. It sounds a little weird, but I completely understand.

Many years ago, I got involved with amateur theater productions, and I found myself absorbing the characters I played and letting them leak into my real life. When I played the role of a super-vain woman, suddenly I started using nail polish and primping a lot more. My personal wardrobe became much more polished. When I played an old hillbilly woman, I started using folksy language and became more comfortable with the rattiest clothes in my closet.

These weren't huge swings of mood or attitude and they faded away after the shows closed, but for a short time, the characters invaded my real life. Fortunately for those around me, I never played a shrew or an axe murderer.

So Reichl's adoption of the different characters made sense to me. The way she slithered in an out of them in such a short time was pretty amazing.

As far as the job, anyone who thinks that a restaurant reviewer's job is the best thing in the world, particularly at a prestigious publication like the NY Times, will find Reichl's book enlightening. To write a review, Reichl would eat at a restaurant about five times, in different disguises and with different sets of people in tow. And after all of that research, she'd get flak from readers who disagreed about her opinions. And then if a fact was wrong - even a tiny fact - she'd get skewered by her bosses.

If you're in love with eating out, then going out to dinner that often probably sounds like a dream job. But really? While Reichl was doing her reviews, she had a young son (and a husband) but she couldn't take her son on all of the review dinners. That's a LOT of dinners away from her kid. Okay, she went to some places at lunchtime, and there were some restaurants where she did bring her husband and son. But there were a lot of meals without her son, and a lot without her husband as well.

And consider that she likes to cook. There were few times in the book where she talked about getting home from the newspaper and cooking dinner at home because she was tired and it was less work than going out, and a few others where she made dinner at home because she enjoyed it. Because of the job, she missed out on a lot of family dinners cooked at home and her son missed having her at home in the evenings.

On the other hand, when her son got to go along to restaurants, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy playing along when his mom was in disguise. It was a fun game for him. So at least he wasn't scarred for life at seeing his mom playing different - and sometimes VERY different - roles in public.

Fortunately, my new gig doesn't require that I wear disguises or go to the same restaurant a half-dozen times, but it IS much different from any of the other writing I do. In one sense, it's more fun to go out to eat knowing that I'm a food spy and that I'll be writing about the food, service, and ambiance.

It's also work. I can't just chit-chat and enjoy a meal - I have to really think about what's in each dish, how it was presented, what the ingredients were. I have to be careful with ordering, so we get a good variety from the menu. I have to taste my companions' meals with the same critical eye as my own. I can't just say that something had herbs in it, I have to know what the herbs were. And I'd better be right.

Reichl struggled with that as well, sometimes quite sure of what was in a dish, and sometimes resorting to asking about ingredients. And even at that, she described having anxiety over certain reviews, worried that she had named the wrong herb. And when she gave poor reviews to prestigious restaurants or good reviews to little noodle shops, she had to prepare for the backlash from all sides.

So, sure, it must be great fun and an amazing opportunity to be a restaurant reviewer in a city like New York. But I can see why she was so happy to leave the job when she did.

Me, I'm still getting my feet wet. Still learning what to look for, what to pay attention to, and what my bosses expect to see in my reviews. Fortunately, the people I work for are not only very savvy about the local restaurant scene, but they know their readers, they know about food, and they're darned good editors.  And compared to Reichl's editors, they're angels. Seriously. Working for the NY Times back when Reichl was there seemed sort of brutal.

If you're a writer and you want to work for pay, you need to abandon your ego and get used to the idea that you will be edited. Bloggers, on the other hand, might get critiques from readers or they might let friends proof their work. But many publish whatever they like, as-is. That's great for the ego, but it makes it difficult to transition into writing for someone else. Everyone gets edited. Sometimes you're not happy with the result. But if you want to keep writing for pay, you have to suck it up and move on. Writers who argue about editing don't last very long. For one reason or another.

Reichl did stand her ground on a few things. For example, she wanted to review not only they high-end fine dining restaurants, but she also wanted to review the everyday places, the little noodle shops, and the obscure hole-in-the-wall joints. She caught some flak for that. Previous reviews were like fantasy land for many readers. Expensive restaurants that they dreamed of eating at, but probably would never afford.

Reichl wanted her reviews to reflect how the average New Yorker ate, including the quick lunch spots, and the places the average reader could afford. And then the expensive spots that might be splurge for a special event. In the end, that's what she did. Needless to say, most writers don't have the sort of power to be able to change policy at a place they work for. Most of them shouldn't. Reichl did.

So, is the New York Times Restaurant Critic the best job in the world? I think not. Friend of the critic, however, would be a great position. Same food, no work, and no disguises needed.

Oh - and by the way, this book also has some of Reichl's recipes in it. I returned the book, but copied the recipes.

1 comment:

saydee said...

I read the book over the winter after a friend gave it to me. I was so completely fascinated by her disguises and the lengths she went to not be recognized. My family has restaurants and everyone knows exactly who most of the reviewers are as soon as they walk in the door, so it's such a creative and unusual idea to dress up in costume to avoid that. I would really recommend the book to people interested in food writing.

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