Sally Franson vs. Ruth Reichl

by Sally Franson

Originally when I started contributing to Paper Darts, my plan was to focus on “classic” works of literature that most people had stopped paying attention to or had maybe forgotten about since they read the Cliffs Notes in high school. This standard has been hard to maintain, however, because as a writer / grad student / teacher / critic I’m constantly being given and recommended brand new books. A long-awaited Zadie Smith novel? Please! A feminist manifesto by Caitlin Moran? Bring it! Paul Auster’s latest memoir? GO ON! A lot of days the very last thing I have the energy for is picking up a dusty old so-called classic book. Why would I struggle through Faulkner at bedtime when I could zip through Emma Straub?

But after an amateur gourmet-slash-student of mine from The Loft Literary Center strongly recommended that I read Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, a 2005 memoir about her tenure as chief restaurant critic for The New York Times in the nineties, I began to reconsider what, precisely, the term “classic literature” meant. For in the canon of food writing, Garlic and Sapphires, though hardly ancient, is a seminal text. Reichl is beloved among foodies not only for her tenure as the NYT critic, but also for her reign over the golden age of Gourmet magazine,1 which ground abruptly to a halt when the monthly publication folded in 2009. She’s been in the industry forever (if “forever” means forty years), and one of the ways she revolutionized food writing was through her belief that taste should be democratized: her writing is almost unilaterally a snobbery-free zone.

How interesting. Seven years after she wrote Garlic and Sapphires, in the age of über-stylized blogs and craft soda/beer/pickles/bacon/gluten-free baked goods, snobbery in food has come back in vogue. So although the memoir doesn’t fit my original conception of “classic literature” due to the hyper-speed of our culture writ large, as well as the “here today, obsolete tomorrow” nature of the New York restaurant industry, there’s something almost quaint and, yes, classic about this delightful book. Inside Garlic and Sapphires, the Twin Towers still stand, Rocco DiSpirito is an up-and-coming dynamo chef, and the financial industry is recession-proof. Nostalgic yet? How about this: the NYT expense account Reichl describes offhandedly is outrageously, stupendously generous. It made me wonder: do expense accounts in the publishing industry even exist anymore?

In any case, Reichl is a great writer, particularly when it comes to gastronomy. Consider this passage about her first amuse bouche at Jean-Georges:

I ate slowly, first the lacy licorice-flavored chervil, then sturdy, spicy wild parsley, and finally the aggressive little fronds of dill. Poring through them I discovered a single leaf of lamb’s quarter, bits of sorrel, dandelion, chickweed. I followed the flavors in my mind until the walls vanished and I emerged into a deep glade that grew more distinct with each bite.

Okay. I have never found myself in a deep glade after eating a bite of food, but man, oh man, doesn’t this description make everybody want to?! Passages like these are enough to let me forgive Reichl for multiple ham-handed accounts of dialogue, in which people speak in full paragraphs to one another.2

And in addition making me salivate over colorful descriptions of tasting menus and talk of world-famous wine, I was also drooling over Reichl’s—yes—delicious smack of insider gossip about the venerable New York Times. Reichl’s predecessor tries to sabotage her career, editors are harried and occasionally greedy, and overall the paper seems like a rather miserable place to work (right down to the dingy cubicles). How Reichl was able to be so honest about her experience was a wonder to this reader; then again, it’s clear she’s not one to stand on ceremony. Readers initially went insane when she started reviewing Thai noodle joints and Korean barbecue restaurants in the Times (The gaucheness! The nerve!), but she continued to devour ethnic food anyway.

Perhaps the best parts of Garlic and Sapphires—even better than the descriptions of food, even better than the elaborate get-ups that Reichl constructs to disguise herself—are the recipes that sandwich each chapter, recipes of Reichl’s own. From hash browns to gougeres to instructions for roasted Brussels that I was DEEPLY COMPELLED to follow right in the middle of my reading, the recipes are good. Better than good: they’re fantastic. Because Reichl may not know how to (ahem, ahem) properly construct dialogue and scene, but she knows food better than anyone. This book is a food-lovers’ classic now, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be.

Check out my Pinterest board for some Reichl-inspired recipes!

1She had the balls to publish, among other great and daring work, David Foster Wallace’s controversial and now-legendary essay “Consider the Lobster.”

2Clearly this is a critic at work, and not a fiction writer.


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