Saturday, January 19, 2008

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

This past week I have been enjoying the book, "Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise," by Ruth Reichl.

Ruth was a food critic at The New York Times. As such, a lot of the restaurants had photos and descriptions of her posted, so that when/if she ever came to their restaurant they could be sure to give her wonderful, quick, doting service and perfectly prepared dishes.

Ruth wanted to get a true picture of the restaurants, their food and their service - so she felt the only way she'd be able to do that, would be if she changed her appearance.

Enlisting an old family friend who had experience in "show business", she created a new look and personality to go with it. She would use her new persona for a time and then move on to another one.

Once she was a elderly, quiet woman whom "no one noticed", so ordinary in appearance she was. Another time she was her deceased mother Miriam - who was very flamboyant and demanded to be noticed.

So far the book has been entertaining. The descriptions of the restaurant dishes are wonderful. I've never eaten fois gras (fattened liver of a duck or goose) - and don't plan on eating it in the near future - but the way Ruth describes the taste and appearance, it pretty much makes me wish I was popping a fat liver into my mouth. Of course one would never be "popping" fois gras into one's would be something you would savor...eating slowly, with small ladylike bites.

When Ruth critiqued a restaurant she would not visit just one time but maybe 4 or 5 times to make sure that the food/service wasn't especially good or especially bad that one time. And she'd also go as herself, so she could see the difference it made in the way she was treated when she was incognito or when she was known.

So I guess the moral of the story is - if you want good service and great better look/act like you are used to great service and great food. I haven't finished the book yet - so perhaps there is another "moral" coming my way.

Incidentally, I generally do not frequent the restaurants Ruth writes idea of a "nice restaurant" is the likes of Bandanas or Applebees... I'm sure I've never paid more than $20 for a meal. Anything over $10 is exiting my comfort zone.

This is how I figure it. Once a meal is finished and my stomach is full - it doesn't really matter if I ate a McDonalds "Happy Meal", soup and a sandwich at home, or a $10 meal at Applebees. The end result is the same. My hunger is gone. Well the end result isn't quite the same. If I ate the food at home - it might cost me $1.00...the happy meal $3.00 and the Applebees meal (with soda!) about $10.00. The difference is how much enjoyment you get out of the meal before and during the time you are there. Another difference would be that the food at home would probably contain a few drizzles of fat whereas the restaurant meal would contain about a pound of fat and a cup of salt (both of which I love!)

I'm not running down "nice restaurants" - if it wasn't for the money factor, I'd definitely be there. I'm just not willing to pay a whole lot for "ambiance" and a passing pleasure. Of course I don't mind someone else paying for me to enjoy the ambiance and passing pleasure! ;) And I don't mind reading about someone else preparing or feasting on wonderful dishes - I can experience those things vicariously and expense free.

"I've had my first ever juice injury!" the boy solemnly told me just now. He is the self-imposed boss of making sure there is juice for breakfast, and if there isn't, he begins the difficult task of making it (ie adding water to frozen concentrate). He gets pretty concerned when I have not done my duty and made sure there is a can in the freezer to immediately fill the empty juice pitcher.

He explained how he was getting out the juice can and somehow, someway the can banged his hand against the chair and cut his finger (no blood...just a little skin scrape).

Awhile later he's back with, "My sister is trying to look up in her "First Aid" book what to do (about his finger)...she's looking up cuts and nose bleeds."

I reassured him that it was NOTHING serious at all, and he ran off.


Meredith said...

I enjoyed that book, too. But like you, I came away feeling oh-so-unsophisticated in our choice of restaurants.

I think Reichl would approve of your experiment, though!

tongue in cheek said...

I swallowed whole every word of Ruth's. She writes with such ease. i enjoy her style and wished I could read her reviews at NYT.
By the way I had fois gras is the best thing I ever ate. I might have to write about that one day.

Lynda said...

I read that book... brilliant! A million miles away from where I was living in Sydney at the time, but I 'devoured' it in one sitting.

I have also eaten Fois Gras.. cooked privately for me by a 5* michelin french chef. I sat alone in the dining room before the dinner crowd... as I was almost finished and contemplating licking the plate, he came out of the kitchen with a basket of fresh baguette and encouraged me to mop up the 'jus'... If I hadn't been married I would have taken him home with me....

MondaythroughSunday said...

OOHH! Sounds like a fun read!