Sunday, December 10, 2006

Garlic and Sapphires

I remember the first time I'd heard of Ruth Reichl. I was still in an early phase of my infatuation with food and cooking. I was working from home, a mix of telecommuting for one company and contract work for others. I would spend the day watching Food Network, listening to music and switching between my Linux and Windows terminals. One of my favorite shows was called Cooking Live, and it featured chef Sarah Moulton. She was friendly, cute, and a good cook. I imagine she still is. As I began to research the chefs that I was watching, I discovered that Sarah was the executive chef at Gourmet Magazine. It wasn't long before I had a subscription, and when I excitedly opened my first issue, I was greeted with that month's message from the editor: some Ruth Reichl lady. Not my beloved Sarah Moulton, who's name I eventually found buried in the colophon. That was several years ago.

I also remember the first time I saw Garlic and Sapphires at the book store. My wife and I were visiting friends in Idaho Falls a few months ago, and we decided to head over to the mall. By that time, I was well aware of who Ruth was, and I looked forward to reading anything by her. Unfortunately, I ended up buying a cook book instead, which I have scarcely looked through since.

I spent this past week in Phoenix, and when I wasn't in class, I was generally cramming for the certification exam at the end of the conference. During our lunch break on the last day, I decided I needed to take a break. I walked over to the mall adjacent to the hotel and made my way to the bookstore and following a brief glance over the tech section, I made my way to the cooking section. I needed something that I could read on the plane, something that told stories instead of giving me more procedures and instructions. Suddenly I saw it again: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. When I walked back into the classroom, I had one book in tow, waiting for me to finish the conference and start reading it. With the exam behind me, I walked back to my own hotel and discovered that I had an hour before my shuttle would take me back to the airport. I opened the book and found page one.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't really even thought about it. I'm sure the last thing I was expecting was a story about a complete stranger sitting next to her on an airplane, spouting information about her that was quite frankly scary. As I read, I was drawn into Reichl's world, experiencing what she experienced. I took note of her description of her airline food, using it to incorrectly predict the tone of the rest of the book. By the time I finished that first chapter, the browning edges of the airline salad were forgotten.

This book tells a story, or perhaps a collection of related stories, of her years as the restaurant critic at the New York Times. At the time she was the food editor at the Los Angeles Times, and had no desire to relocate to the other side of the country and live in New York. She accepted an offer to meet for fifteen minutes for coffee, which ended up turning into a day-long interview with various editors and such at the Times. This would eventually turn into them almost begging her to take the job, which she did.

Inspired perhaps by the stranger on the airplane, Reichl takes to disguises, and the personalities that they wrap her in with them. Some are bold, some are timid. She begins her employment at the Times by revoking a star from Le Cirque, one of New York's most celebrated restaurants, and for good reason. I mentally cheered as her piece was printed, and she received voice mail from people telling her how glad they were that somebody was finally on their side. The controversies are set in motion, as she refuses to accept French, Italian and Continental fare as the only cuisine worth considering, and starts giving two and three stars to noodle shops in So Ho for their divine offerings of Asian culture. Reichl recognizes that Europe does not hold monopoly on fine food, and is not afraid to tell New York that. She is called an idiot by many, including Bryan Miller, the previous critic, for her bold opinions.

I don't believe Reichl intended to portray Miller as an enemy, but each time she mentioned him, my dislike of him grew. I finally decided that the only way to objectively view him was to see if he had any books out. When I searched for him on Amazon, the first result was Dessert for Dummies. Second was Cooking Basics for Dummies. Ever since reading Networking for Dummies several years ago, my plight to learn a little more about a field that fascinated me met by little more than advising the reader to bribe systems administrators with twinkies before attempting to learn anything themselves, I had despised the Dummies series. Having played the sysadmin role myself on occassion, I have difficulty thinking of that entire series without some degree of comtempt. As I read more about Miller, I wondered how much he took the concept of Cooking Basics for Dummies to heart. I still wonder if those books are really meant for dummies, or just for people that sometimes feel like dummies.

In contrast to Miller's apparently arrogant approach to food, Reichl seems to have nothing but love for it. She describes dishes in a manner that makes me imagine them more avidly than I suspect I could had I actually been there. The book is littered with recipes that seem reassuring to the reader, each a silent pat on the back and a reminder from the author that yes, you really can be a good cook, and why don't I help you find out how?

When she describes a dish that is lacking, I feel a sadness that I am sure that she felt at the time, that the food was not better taken care of. An occassional contempt will glide across her words, and I know that it is not for people who behave poorly, but for the behavior itself. When she describes one restaurant, described by many as the most romantic places to eat in New York, she becomes embittered about the service and the food alike, and attempts to view the restaurant from the eyes of one of the most poorly behaved people working there. Fortunately, a friend manages to slap her out of it and help her realize who and what she was becoming.

As I reached the final pages of the book, I was disappointed only that there were no more. It's not often that I get to read something purely for pleasure, and when I try I am often too distracted to focus on it. This was the first book I'd read since Kitchen Confidential that refused to let me put it down. My distractions faded as I read, and before I was even halfway through I was on a mission to finish as quickly as possible. I could barely wait to find out what would happen next. I suppose I expected the book to cover only a fraction of her time at that job, that the book would end before she left the paper. When she ended instead with an offer for what was to become her next job, I felt a sense of completion.

As I read this book, I thought about people who would enjoy it. My wife, a hairdresser and previously a theatre major, would love the fashion aspect. Our friend Susan, who sings for the Utah Opera and makes the best fried green tomatoes I have ever imagined, would adore it. And then I realized that I could not think of a single person who would not enjoy it.


  1. I checked out Ruth's books on amazon and they do look really good. I'll have to see if I can get a hold of one to read.

    You know, as soon as you mentioned the "for dummies" series, I knew what you were talking about. I once bought a web pages for dummies book, and have since been sorely disappointed. Oh well.

  2. Joseph,

    I did a google search for 'couples cooking classes' and Utah- and it led me to your blog. I must admit to laughing uproariously at your description of teaching cooking classes to what I assume were LDS ward Relief Societies (but it's probably the same at every church). You were right on the money!

    In any case, I have a question. I'd love to surprise my current computer geek husband with some 'couples cooking classes' for the two of us for Christmas. He's not looking for a career change or anything and it seems most of what I can find are either fairly expensive classes geared to people who want to make this a career OR community ed classes that are really basic. What I can't find is anything in between. Do you know of anything like that? I'd love to learn cooking techniques like basic knife skills, how to properly make a reduction sauce etc. Kind of like a night out for several couples where we learn to cook (and eat dinner when we're done) but not 'I want to be a professional chef' level of classes. I'm one of the 'good cooks' in my ward group but that isn't really saying much! LOL! You seem to be tied into the scene here- can you direct me to someone/ someplace that offers this?


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