Tuesday, May 18, 2010

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

I've been a vegetarian for almost 13 years, but I ate part of a chicken dumpling the other day.

It wasn't on purpose. All the others were vegetable, so I had no reason not to dunk the last one in ginger sauce and take a bite. The taste, texture and overall sensation appalled me so that I think I will stay a vegetarian for another 13 years, possibly for as long as I live. And for that reason, I will never be a serious restaurant critic.

Reading Ruth Reichl's account of her years as the New York Times restaurant critic didn't make me want to eat meat, but it made me wish that I wanted to. I want to introduce friends to the wonders of organ meat, savor well-prepared fois gras, take the 7 out to Flushing for the perfect red-cooked pork belly and crispy chicken, be all-knowing about the cemitas and pernil of Bushwick and the bracciole of Caroll Gardens.

Sometimes Reichl writes about food as an end in itself, but more often it's an allusion to a memory or experience. And ultimately, the book is really about the experience of being a woman -- lots of women. Reichl learns early on that the Times critic is recognized in all of New York's fine-dining restaurants and so, with the help of an old friend of her mother's, she creates several elaborate disguises, each with a whole persona and even a back story to go with them. Chloe, with her champaigne-colored bob, red nails and little black dresses, speaks in a breathy voice and admires the wine knowledge of the men who vie for her attention. No cab ever passes her by. Brenda's bright, crumpled clothing, long messy red curls and warm disposition draw strangers to her, even in New York. Betty, with her grey hair, stoop and sensible handbag, is all but invisible everywhere she goes. Reichl never talks about feminism, never makes a point about how society has no use for unattractive women. As with all of the best show-me-don't-tell me writing, she doesn't have to.

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