Hannibal Free Public Library

Garlic and Sapphires

Ruth Reichl

November 30, 2009

Ruth Reichl, world-renowned food critic and editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, knows a thing or two about food. She also knows you need to be anonymous when reviewing restaurants.  In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl reveals the comic absurdity, artifice, and excellence to be found in the sumptuously appointed stages of the epicurean world and gives us—along with some of her favorite recipes and reviews.  

Discussion Questions:

Reichl’s husband, at one point when she gets caught up in the glamour of her job, reminds her why food is really important. “You love to eat, you love to write, and you love the generosity of cooks and what happens around the table when a great meal is served.”  How do the three components blend in Garlic and Sapphires?

A book reviewer says, “Ruth Reichl manages to make not only writing about food, but writing about writing about food both entertaining and gastronomically bearable.”  Did you feel the format of her memoir was engaging?

In an interview with Psychology Today, Reichl explains the importance of food. She said, “It’s a way that we tell the world who we are, a way of setting boundaries. You can see it in young children…Everybody tells about their parents warning, “You can't leave the table until you've eaten this or that.” And the child will sit there, all day long and say, “You can’t make me.” What they mean is “I can tell you who I am through this.” Do you agree that food can define us and our lives?

How does Reichl touch upon topics of gender, class and generational issues in the world of fine food in her book?

What does she have to say about the political and social importance of food?

During her job interview, Reichl openly criticizes the paper’s high-brow approach to restaurant ratings, telling the editors that most people reading the reviews will never be able to eat at Le Cirque or Daniel (at least not on a regular basis) but want to be able to imagine that they can. How do her reviews allow people to do this?

 “To say that the only thing that matters is what's on the plate is to miss the major role restaurants have in our lives today,” said Reichl. Is she able to portray that eating in a restaurant is more than just a physical experience?

By using disguises, Reichl is able to slip into the world of the “ordinary” diner. She can see what each restaurant will serve to the patrons who seem to be nobodies. Why is important that she has this type of experience in a restaurant? Do you feel this allows her to write an objective review?

Which disguise is your personal favorite?  Why?

Each disguise takes on a personality. What does Ruth learn about herself and others through each disguise?

“Every restaurant is a theater,” Reichl explains. “Each one offers the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality.”  How have restaurants allowed you to leave reality for a time?

Lisa Check said, “Her husband brings to mind the poem Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot “Garlic and Sapphires in the mud” as a way to describe the transition of Ruth. (http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/reviews/garlicsapphires.shtml)  Why is it a good title for Reichl’s book?

Gourmet ceased publication with the November issue.  What will you miss about it?  How will you replace the recipes and information it has provided you over the years?  Or, will you return again and again to your horde of Christmas issues?


Adapted from Book Discussion Questions developed by staff at Manitowoc Public Library in Wisconsin .