Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ruth Reichl Strikes Again

Several months ago I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Ruth Reichl’s Tender At the Bone. Over the last seven days I’ve inhaled her two follow ups, Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires. Comfort picks up where Tender At the Bone left off, with stories of Reichl’s personal struggles, triumphs, and meals.

Throughout Comfort, I imagined Reichl as someone I would love to have dinner with. The meal would, regardless of whether she introduced me to an amazing new restaurant or whipped up something in the kitchen at her commune home in Berkeley, be one to remember. Her love of food was infectious, and her relationships, dreams, and concerns felt both real and familiar. She was, simply put, someone I wanted to spend time with.

Fast forward to her stint as the restaurant critic at The New York Times, and Reichl seems like a different person. Perhaps Garlic and Sapphires suffered by being read directly after Comfort Me With Apples, but I missed the spontaneous, neurotic woman who was driven crazy by her mother; the one who woke up both satiated and devastated to find herself in bed with a man who wasn’t her husband; the one who baked a chocolate cake as a declaration of love.

The Ruth Reichl who wrote for The Times lacked the spunk of the earlier books’ narrator. Given how much I liked that first Ruth, I feel a little bad saying so, but The Times’s Reichl seems exactly like the kind of person Berkeley Reichl would disdain. She has clearly come into her own, and her success is well deserved. But there is something off putting about the way she flaunts her new wealth. The style of flaunting is one that has rubbed me the wrong way in the past, too, most memorably in the stage production of The Year of Magical Thinking (I’ve yet to read the book but assume Didion will annoy me no less in print). Reichl never mentions her vast sums of money but drops hints about the posh location of and services at her apartment building; when told the shockingly-high price of a wig she tries on she responds with an I simply must have it air. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about her refusal to directly acknowledge that she now leads a life foreign to the rest of us irritates me. It is inauthentic—she’s not an idiot; she clearly knows that we don’t all live like this—and there is nothing worse in a memoir than falsity.

Aware that she has changed, Reichl even includes in Garlic and Sapphires an article she wrote defending her career as a restaurant critic and acknowledging how she would never have imagined such a life for herself as a young woman in Berkeley. Then she goes on to admit that even she doesn’t believe her own article’s fabricated happy ending, right before recounting yet another divinely delicious and extravagantly expensive meal.

These meals and the articles she writes about them are the backbone of Garlic and Sapphires. But restaurant review after restaurant review does not a bestseller make, so Reichl drums up excitement where she can. Throughout her tenure at The Times, she invents alter egos and disguises as a means to dine anonymously at New York’s finer restaurants. She seems to truly believe her claims that she is treated shabbily when she goes out to eat as Betty, Miriam, Chloe, or Brenda. And no doubt she does not receive the royal treatment that she gets when she makes a reservation under her own name. But I, as one of the masses, can’t quite believe that life is the parade of disappointments she’d have you believe. It’s almost as if Reichl wants us, the little people, to know that she’s still one of us and feels our pain. But she’s so overeager to prove it that she practically invents new pains for us to feel. For instance, Reichl says of Jean-Georges:

The skinny young woman examined me dubiously, swinging her long black hair suspiciously back from her shoulder as my hand went to the wig in an involuntary, self-conscious motion. I said Toni’s name and the woman hesitated, searching in her book, reluctant to allow me access to the restaurant.
Not that long ago, I, myself, went out to eat at Jean-George; not only was I “allowed access to the restaurant,” the hostess was pleasant and even took my Filene’s Basement faux suede coat without turning her nose up. Though I’m sure there are plenty of restaurants where everyone from the hostess to the waiter to the sommelier to the busboy is snobby, I get the distinct impression that Reichl is manufacturing drama where there isn’t any.

Or maybe it’s as simple as this: the first two books were deeply personal. Garlic and Sapphires is more of a professional memoir than a personal one, and her anecdotes about clever disguises, odd dining partners, and plate after plate of foie gras do not add up to a sum greater than their parts.

With beautiful writing, delicious descriptions of every food she encounters, and emotional heft, Comfort Me With Apples gets my unqualified recommendation. Garlic and Sapphires, though, is only for the true foodies among us.


anne s. said...

What a magnificently written review!