My Sister the Spy
Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires
I know the joyous abandon of dining with a woman who isn’t shy about acting happy. My mother’s side of the family is mental illness-free, and she’s a fabulous cook. But when she enters a restaurant she’s also uniquely capable of abandoning herself to appetite, enthusiasm and wonder. A chic, well-traveled grande dame, she’s never become jaded and for her every restaurant outing is an occasion of delight. Restaurants are so eager to enchant her that they roll over on their backs and beg her to scratch their tummies. Last month, I sipped a late afternoon Dubonnet with my parents at the bar of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Mummy loved the elegant nibbles set out on the bar -- the cool luxe. She commented on the embroidered linen coasters; the bartender handed her a starched snowy stack with his compliments. Another meal at a two-star with Mummy: the staff sent her home with an armful or orchids fit for the Queen Mother. She declined a basket of the beautifully rolled hand towels from the Ladies Room. It was a close escape: five more minutes and the staff would have boxed up the custom china (service for twelve) she’d admired, the executive chef’s Bragard jacket and two racks of pre-sale.
Two weeks later, Mummy’s LA stories and royal treatment were distant dreams stiffened against a Great Lakes November wind. They shivered as I scraped the copy of Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires (Penguin Press, 2005) from under the front-stoop doormat where the UPS guy had hidden it -- not the last gasp of memory, I would learn, but a premonition of bracing refreshment.
I slid through the back-from-work ritual: fed the cats while holding my breath to avoid the whiff of Seafood Supper, put a pan of water on the stove and checked for that ominous tinge of pink behind the glassine windows of the bills. I broke a nail prying open the cardboard coffin from Amazon, removed my business heels and hose and found an ashtray. For the rest of the evening, I raised myself only twice, and only from necessity.
Ruth Reichl is, thank God, living proof that an Art History major can find a good job, have a good time, and make a lot of money. She lived the California Culinary revolution, fed a commune in Berkeley, palled with Alice Waters, cooked at and co-owned a restaurant, edited the Los Angeles Times food section, won awards for journalism and memoirs. That’s before her stint as restaurant critic for the New York Times, 1993-1999, the period she describes in Garlic and Sapphires. She’s now editor-in-chef of Gourmet magazine. Her professional cred is impeccable, but her memoirs are as intimate as the secrets shared between siblings: Reichl is the most emotionally available food writer since M.F.K. Fisher. She knew Fisher, of course -- Mary Frances packed a lunch for Reichl and Michael Singer, her husband, and told them to follow a path until they found a clearing suitable for an amorous fete-champetre. There isn’t any name worth knowing in the food culture that Reichl doesn’t know; her stories read like Tiger Beat for foodies (boomers of the female persuasion will recognize that as a compliment). Who knew, for instance, that the grandmotherly Marion Cunningham once stockpiled gin because she was terrified that distillers would stop making it? (She got herself off the sauce by force of will.)
All of us who've survived high school understand that appearance is all: prom and pompoms for the pretty, Saturday nights with Starsky and Hutch for the plain. Every girl wants to know how the other one sees life, and how life sees her. If you’re a woman over forty, you’ve looked around for your mother and realized that she's not in the room, or even in town -- her voice has become yours. Ruth Reichl decided to go there.
She would actually become her late mother, wearing her mother's dress and jewelry, haircut and attitude. Mom Miriam was a no less difficult woman than Ruth had remembered, but the daughter finds herself confessing "Having spent most of my life being embarrassed by Mom, I was surprised to see how easily I slipped into her shoes."
Finding out it was fun was even more frightening: “Becoming my mother was like getting cosmic permission to abandon my superego, act without considering the consequences, behave badly.” Ruth as Miriam not only was a little old lady who didn’t take any crap at New York's 21, she felt free to return elderly oysters, demand that tepid soup be reheated and coach the waiter on the amount of cheese to add to the Caesar Salad. When Mom went to the Four Seasons she lived large and loved life -- and so did her daughter. “My mother could be difficult, but when she was happy she was uniquely capable of abandoning herself to the moment. In becoming her I had shed the critic, abandoned the appraiser who sat at a distance, weighing each bite, measuring each dish.”
An outing to Le Cirque disguised as Molly Hollis, a retired schoolteacher from Birmingham, Michigan, in an outdated Armani suit in the company of another lady of a certain age got them an excellent dinner, a tiny back table and invisibility -- the service ran the nasty gamut from arrogant to zilch. When Warren Hoge, the assistant managing editor of the Times took Ruth and her husband to lunch, Sirio Maccioni gave them a better table and swapped out the raspberry tartlets: "Anyone with eyes could see it: the new raspberries were twice the size of the old ones . . . " On another visit she made a reservation under an assumed name but went undisguised. The silky Mr. Maccioni wasn’t fooled twice -- he kept the King of Spain waiting in the bar and swept her party to a front four-top.
Tender at the Bone is Reichl's bildungsroman: her childhood with her bi-polar mother, her schooldays in Montreal, (once my city) and Ann Arbor, and her fateful move to California. In Comfort Me with Apples she confides about her marriages, love affairs and maternity -- a food writer channeling Colette. Garlic and Sapphires is subtitled “The Secret Life of a Food Critic in Disguise,” and it’s a personal peek into the alternate lives she invented while trying to foil the sharp-eyed restaurateurs who taped up her picture in their kitchens. Like a master spy or a good actor she didn’t just pull a wig over that glorious bedhead -- she prepared for her parts with makeup, costume and back story. She inhabited the roles, and then discovered that the roles inhabited her; she even found that her signature on the credit card slip had morphed into another woman’s handwriting. Reading about these other women is like discovering that your sister really is a modern-day Mata Hari, the Cate Blanchett of restaurant writers. Ruth Reichl, a few years older than I, is my pick for coolest big sister ever -- one who lets you sneak a long look inside her diary.
My husband opened the door; I put him in charge of dinner without looking up. I remember him handing me a glass of wine as he checked out the cover of the chronicle that had entranced me all evening. "Any good?" he asked. I handed him the book in order to answer a phone call ("Yes, we need new energy-efficient windows. No, I'm not interested.”), then had to pry it from his paws. I turned off the pan of water I'd started for skinning fresh tomatoes and told him it was fine to use canned for quick-and-dirty pasta putanesca. Four hours and a dinner break later I'd finished. I guess you could say Ruth had me from Garlic.
November 22, 2005