Critic Confidential

It's tough being The New York Times' food critic. No, really.

THE SEATTLE WEEKLY is not The New York Times, but neither is Seattle New York, so as I read esteemed food critic Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (Penguin Press, $24.95), I found myself wondering if I might need the wild white wig I stashed up in the attic last summer. Maybe no one's on the lookout for me, but maybe they are. Maybe my fake glasses, fake names, and frequent hairstyle changes aren't enough. Maybe I need to do some shopping on my employer's clock; maybe I, too, need a half-dozen alter egos—and the clothes and accessories to go with them. Or maybe I just want an excuse to be someone I'm not over a plate of gnocchi. Maybe I just want a few new outfits. Reichl's third memoir is a character study of anonymity and masquerade. The first is an elusive goose to chase when you are the new food writer at the most important newspaper in the nation's most important city, and the second is a stepsister who, in reveling herself to you, will show you who you are, too, but she will also steal your boyfriend and make you cry. Eating out as Chloe (she got the name from the label in her persona's chic new suit), Reichl discovered her ability to purr and coo and flip "her" blond hair lasciviously. She learned she could charm men and take advantage of them, too. As Brenda, she notices the way her husband exchanges a look with their doorman and wonders if you can be jealous of yourself; as Betty it occurs to her how very far away, literally and otherwise, she is from her hippie foodie days in Berkeley, and the distance makes her doubt everything that she's become. DOES SHE HAVE any time to eat with all this existential dilemma? Just barely. Reichl does have a thing or two to say about the foie at the Four Seasons, the kimchee at Kang Suh, the shimeji mushroom broth at Lespinasse. The book includes some recipes and a few of her Times reviews so you can follow a few of the stories all the way through to print, or maybe just to prove that there really was a point to all the costuming, makeup lessons, and make believing. Food and restaurants are only really meant to be bit players in Garlic and Sapphires, and that fits because part of Reichl's charm as a writer, and part of her current incarnation as editor in chief at Gourmet, is looking beyond the plate. She puts food experiences into the context of life, even if her life sometimes seems a bit—well, fantastical. In Reichl's New York, well-placed strangers are as happy as Midwesterners to sew up her loose ends. In her household, children chat politely about god and the shape of the universe. On her dates (well, actually, they're Chloe's) adults sit across the table from each other, close their eyes, sip wine, and—in lieu of simply picking out the woody, earthy flavor notes—they describe hidden woodland knolls and imagine the gurgling of nearby watercourses. "It's cool in here and there is a brook at our feet, which murmurs softly," says Dan, Chloe's date (his words "wash over" her). "Violets are poking their heads up, between fiddlehead ferns." I'm sure that grown people really do sit across from each other and, uh, murmur softly about Musigny, but Jesus, do we have to talk about it? ON THE OTHER hand, Reichl makes her job seem difficult, tedious, and trying. "Self-doubt may be healthy, but it's hell on critics," she writes. Amen, sister. But at the end of the day, writing about food has to be the best job a body can have. I mean, even I named my column Eat Your Heart Out. Ruth Reichl reads at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 14.

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