2005_04_artsgarlic.jpgAs the New York Times’s restaurant critic from 1993 to 1999, Ruth Reichl confirmed that two of New Yorkers’ favorite pursuits, self-invention and eating, can go hand in hand (and, at least in restaurants, usually do). In order to visit restaurants without being recognized by the waiters and chefs who had tacked her picture to staff bulletin boards as soon as her appointment was announced, Reichl not only often ate in disguise but also invented a persona for each outfit. With each new wig and elaborate makeup application she became someone other than Ruth Reichl, a Midwestern schoolteacher, a sexy divorcee, a wacky but loveable bohemian. She describes this experience in her third memoir, the entirely winning Garlic and Sapphires—in which we learn that even the greatest job at the greatest paper in the greatest city in the world is not without its stresses.

Reichl knew that patrons considered undistinguished by restaurants often received bad or even hostile service and food, but she was surprised by the way everyone—including her husband, doorman, and coworkers-treated her differently when she was in disguise. Even she saw herself differently when she was a blonde or a redhead, a prim housewife or a little old lady. She finally became a bit frightened by the extent to which her alter-egos had taken on lives of their own; luckily, she was tapped to be the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, where she remains to this day. (It is clear that the famously noxious atmosphere of the Times had something to do with her move, too. Times-watchers will seize upon the crumbs of gossip she lets drop.)

An engaging storyteller and an extraordinarily lively writer, Reichl is especially capable in her descriptions of such evanescent matter as the taste of foie gras with strawberries or the feeling of descending to a clattery subway platform when you’re already sad and crowded by the city. Her story reminds us how much and how quickly the city can change. In 1993, when Reichl started reviewing, hardly any downtown restaurants were on the fine dining radar, which was dominated by the stuffy French stalwarts of Midtown. Few people believed that Times Square could become a friendly neighborhood. And, she reports, the gentrification of the Upper West Side did not extend above 86th St.! Perhaps most shocking of all-would you believe that just over a decade ago, there existed many New Yorkers who had to be convinced to eat sushi and told how to do so?

Garlic and Sapphires includes old reviews of restaurants that are still around today as well as recipes that Reichl makes at home. Anyone interested in the way our appearance can dictate our experiences in the world, in the inner workings of the Times, or, of course, in food and restaurants will love this book. Gothamist intends to go back and read Tender at the Bone, Reichl’s memoir of growing up in Greenwich Village, and Comfort Me With Apples, the story of her twenties, spent in Berkeley, right away.

The 92nd Street Y hosts a conversation between Reichl and Liz Smith on May 18, but you can buy tickets now. You can read the Times Book Review’s somewhat skittish review of Garlic and Sapphires here, and here is William Grimes describing the way dining in the city changed during his tenure as restaurant critic.