Thursday, April 28, 2005

Book review: Garlic and Sapphires

When I was a little girl, reading was my favorite thing. I would while away hours at a time, my nose deep in a book, my brain somewhere else completely. To me, reading was better than TV, better even than the movies.

These days, older, not much wiser and much more distracted, I often long for nothing but an airplane or a beach so I can devour a book cover to cover, so quickly that it's a miracle I remember it at all. But there's very few books that convince me to surrender my whole weekend to it and a comfy chair.

Ruth Reichl's three memoirs - Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples and now Garlic and Sapphires - are those sorts of books for me. Reichl writes real life so that it feels like fiction, and her lush but simple prose about food makes me want to do nothing but eat.

Here's her description of water: "I tipped the liquid into my mouth and it was instantly flooded with icy coldness and a deep, ancient flavor, as if the water had come bubbling up from the middle of the earth." Some have said Reichl can be a little overzealous, and maybe that's true, but don't you long for a deep, cold drink of water right now? And I don't even like water.

In Garlic and Sapphires, one of the first restaurants Reichl reviews in her new post as the restaurant critic for the New York Times is Honmura An, a now-famous Japanese noodle house in Manhattan. About the restaurant's soba noodles, Reichl writes: "The noodles are earthy and elastic, soft and slightly firm to the tooth, and when you dip them into the briny bowl of dashi it is as if land and sea were coming, briefly, together."

After reading that, I have had an insatiable yen for noodles, a dish I love, but repeated visits to Noodles & Co., a Boulder chain restaurant, have not cured me. Mainly because everything I've had there that actually involves noodles sucks, frankly, although the non-noodled mixed grill is good.

Reichl's clear adoration of food explains why she went from obscure food critic at a small San Francisco weekly to the restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times to the country's most powerful dining critic. The Grey Lady's snobby climate got to even Reichl, and she moved on to head Gourmet Magazine in April 1999, making it into a gorgeous monthly homage to food, wine, culture and the written word.

Like J.K. Rowling, another writer whose work I've inhaled, I can't quite put my finger on what makes Reichl's writing so compelling to me. Both women use simple sentences that convey exact but full meanings. You know Rowling delivers a precise image when you see the Harry Potter movies - every character from Harry to Hermione to Professor Dumbledore looks just as you imagined them. Reichl's books haven't been made into movies, but her goal is different. While Rowling is precisely describing characters and situations, Reichl's talent primarily is describing eating experiences. Having said that, she also creates memorable characters, and one wonders how much of them are real and how much of them are fiction. I'm always left wondering if the people she writes about end up insulted, dead, or so insulted that they died as a result.

Reichl's other books deal with her childhood and her eccentric parents, and then move on to cover her life in Berkeley cooking organic food in a commune in the 70s. Always she winds the food into stories, including her favorite (and always simple) recipes as part of the text.

The title of this book comes from Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. Reichl's husband, TV news producer Michael Singer, cites it to her after a particularly horrible dinner with an unbearable food snob who won dinner with her at a charity auction. After Reichl behaves boorishly, lording her vast food experiences and knowledge over the self-described "food warrior," Michael walks out of the dinner at Windows on the World, feigning having had oral surgery that morning. Upon arriving home, Reichl questions her husband's abrupt departure. He quotes: "'Garlics and sapphires in the mud ...' I remember that when you got into this it was almost a spiritual thing with you. You love to eat, you love to write, you love the generosity of cooks and what happens around the table when a great meal is served. Nothing that went on last night had anything to do with that. ... There must be better ways to give," he says. "Don't give yourself away."

When I was Broadcasting & Cable's Los Angeles Bureau Chief, I thought a lot about how people treated me a certain way because of what I could or could not (or would or would not) do for them. Now that I am not in that position, those relationships have changed, as I expected they would. Reichl allowed herself to get caught up in the power of the country's most powerful paper, as anyone would. When she finally realized the pressure and the false power was turning her into a person she didn't like, she knew it was time to move on.

Reichl has lived a rich life, and done us a favor by capturing it on paper. But what annoys me is that she spends her whole life eating and remains slim. She told in 1996: "I think I have a very good metabolism. I haven't gained or lost weight for years. I think it's partly that I'm not obsessed with it. I eat what I want. I probably eat a lot more when I'm cooking for myself, because I'm making exactly what I want made to my taste."

If I were a restaurant critic, I would certainly weigh 400 pounds. Definitely proof that life is not fair, or that some people are better suited to restaurant criticism than others. (Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, 328 pages, The Penguin Press, $24.95)

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