I always say that Facebook can be a curse and a blessing at the same time. I admit that it’s a love-hate relationship on my part. Many times it’s all about love though! I wouldn’t be in contact with anyone if it were not for it, especially since I’ve moved to the UK a few years ago. I only wish that I had something like this available when I lived even more far away than that eleven years ago. I love the interaction with long lost friends though I rarely accept friend requests from people I don’t know at all. One thing I enjoy are photo albums (or individual photos for that matter) about food. It’s a feast for my eyes and I love when people forgo everyday takeaways and cook something from scratch. One of these albums belongs to Andrew – a good friend of mine who loves to cook and so loves to eat! I don’t know if he is aware of this, but he lately gave me some ideas for a few Maltese-inspired dishes. I promised that I’ll cook something for him whenever he’s around for a visit.
Andrew was also kind enough to send me his copy of The Nigella Lawson Edition of Stylist Magazine. When this arrived through the post I was positively thrilled. Not only was it full of gorgeous photos and articles, but it also came with some book recommendations at the back. I decided to buy them, not necessarily all at once! I really love books, sometimes too much even for my own liking, and most of the time I regret it. The concept of time just doesn’t exist for me in bookshops, but I regret it more often than not because I rarely purchase books from the stores any more. I buy second hand books these days. They are cheaper, most of the time they are in good condition and hey, it’s also good for the environment. And some books are just not found in the high street anyway. But I digress…
The book I started with is Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic by food writer and editor Ruth Reichl. I knew who Ms. Reichl was but I never read her. Mistake. What I didn’t know was that Garlic and Sapphires was the third part of her memoirs, although to her credit, one can read this without necessarily reading the other two parts. She is an amazing writer – I really cannot stress this enough. I was immediately taken into her world and her work from the first page. She is not just a foodie. She is a journalist with a capital J, with a true knowledge of food and of life: an expert. I was hooked.
A year or so ago I would never have thought that I would be reading something from a food critic. Never. I thought they were all high-strung stuck-up snobs, moving from one restaurant to the other, pointing fingers at the hard-working chef or sous chef slaving in the kitchen since the wee hours of the morning to get everything set up for lunch in time. I mean, come on, you get paid to eat! Some definitely fit this description, but Ruth Reichl isn’t one of them. I’m no food critic, and to be honest I’m not sure I ever want to be one. It’s a tough job, especially when you work for a high profile newspaper. The politics behind close doors can be unbearable. You really have to love your job, not merely to eat fabulous food, but to go to a restaurant several times in different disguises. When you’re a famous critic with The New York Times you are easily recognised; that’s just the way it is. Reichl says that she wasn’t even in New York yet, when someone pointed her out on the plane. Early on she knew that to give the most objective reviews she had to find a way to taste the food without being who she really was. The staff, judging the book by it’s cover, treated her differently, offering the best when she went to a restaurant as herself while almost doing the opposite when in disguise. If only they knew who they were being obnoxious to! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Ruth went out for a meal as Betty, a character inspired by an “invisible” but adorable old lady she met on a bus. It could be a stand alone topic for another book! Seriously, respect for the older generation has gone down the drain.
I should have read Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table first- Ruth’s culinary adventures as a child, but no harm done. I think that this is the most entertaining book out of the three. There’s no question – writing a serious autobiography, memoir or whatever you want to call it, takes guts. It’s personal in nature and therefore it can be revealing. And it’s not only about you, but also about your family, which can make it a bit complicated. No family story is straightforward and you would be in La La Land if you happen to think otherwise. Reichl’s way of doing things is very endearing. She admits to merging two characters into one or changing some happenings here and there, which I think she does mostly for discretion’s sake. I still think it’s ok though. The essence of the story is still present. I laughed so much as she protected both the guests and her own friends at her mother’s dinner parties or at informal gatherings before they tasted the “mouldy” food. I was moved by the way she writes about both her parents and the rest of her family. About their mother, her brother says: “I don’t know how I survived her cooking. She’s a menace to society!” Then she grew up, worked in restaurants, did a fair share of travelling, married and lived in a commune, and together with her friends she opened The Swallow, where she was both cook and co-owner. Everything was not straightforward. She worked hard at overcoming personal difficulties.
In the final pages of Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table Reichl says: “I took the title of this book from the Song of Solomon, which has a lot to say about both food and love.” (This is also known as the Song of Songs.) I am definitely *not* going to go into the theology of it. We will leave that to any Biblical expert out there who might want to give it a go! What we can say for sure is that someone’s background, culture, faith or environment (or lack of, if that’s even possible) does have an influence on the food we grow up with. You can definitely see this in Reichl’s recipes, and in everyone else’s for that matter. In this second part we can see the transition between cook and food critic. As she advances in her work, she builds contacts, meets famous chefs, becomes more known herself, but her personal life goes the other way. Her marriage breaks down, her mother gives her a hard time; life becomes tougher but she faces her problems and admits when she’s wrong. Her trip to Barcelona unravelled an unsuccessful meal and most importantly her feelings. “When I got on the plane, I didn’t really know why I was coming. But I do now. I needed to find out that sometimes even your best is not good enough. And that in those times you have to give it everything you’ve got. And then move on.” A lesson for life. In the meantime I’m searching for Reichl’s other books. I know they will be a treat.