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Book Review: Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic by Ruth Reichl

It’s summer. A time of escape and holiday. When stuck at home, what better way to escape than with a great book?

There is a particular type of book that I love: the food memoir. Stories and anecdotes punctuated with recipes. Recipes of significance, from childhood and striking occasions, recipes that evoke memories and feelings, and warmth. Sometimes detailing such intimacy you feel you are in it, and when you finish the book it is with sadness, as all of the people you got to know, disappear.

I always seek them out, and recommend them to friends. I started to wonder why I wasn’t recommending them to you, so here you are. The first review in what will be many recommendations of books that you can escape in.

Gifted to me by a friend some years ago, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic is one of these lovely books. Authored by Ruth Reichl, ex editor of Gourmet and prior to that, critic for the NY Times, it’s a captivating read. I found it when moving flat, remembered how much I had enjoyed it and read it once more this past weekend.

Bracingly honest and moving, it details her time as the NY Times food critic. Her disguises, the characters she adopted, her relationships with colleagues, friends and family, the joy her son gets from his Mum’s costumes, her husbands honesty as he watches her become the critic, deceiving the doorman and the drama of buying the wigs. The lengths that she pushes herself to deliver anonymous trustworthy reviews is startling and very engaging. This is particularly interesting in these times, with so much debate around the celebrity status of critics, and the non anonymous reviewing of (some) critics and bloggers alike (my position is stated on my about page before you ask!).

I liked the book so much, I am going to offer one as a competition prize. I will buy a copy and send it to one of the people that comments on this post. I promise you will love it! So, leave a comment, and I will chose one at random on Friday, it’s as simple as that. Fair as always, every entrant has an equal chance of winning.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic

I am going to cook one of the recipes from the book next. Come back to see how it goes! :)



Filed under: Random


Cooking and travelling, and sharing it all with you.


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  2. Hi Niamh,
    great post, have been wanting to read this book for ages. So I will buy it myself should I not win it ;)
    Hope you have recovered and enjoyed your holiday! would be nice seeing you again some time.


  3. Jayna says

    I’ve always loved reading food related books – from food writers to chefs but never read one written by a food critic before. This would be lovely to win =)

  4. Ariane says

    Hmm, sounds great – one to pick up even if I don’t win ;)

  5. That book looks great – sign me up for the prize draw! And I’m looking forward to more recommendations. I love reading and I love food, so am always happy to combine the two. :D

  6. I’m the same, I love this kind of book – not only rich in recipes but also intimate, personal, often charming… more of a whole experience than most recipe-only cookery books!

  7. Lynne says

    have already checked the book out and added it to my Amazon wish list, just in case!

  8. beatrice says

    Just read your review about the Garlic and Sapphires book. Sounds very intersting!
    I’d love to win a copy!

  9. Mel says

    Ooh, this sounds intriguing. And if your book recommendations are as good as your food ones, then definitely worth a read. Worth a comment for the chance to win a copy.



  10. I love reading books like this as as you clearly do to, so I highly recommend that you read a book called ‘A Cook’s Tour’ by Anthony Bourdain. He has written a few book about his life as a chef but I find this book the most interesting one to read as it documents his travels around the world eating strange and somtimes stomach wrenching things on his way as well as learning about the different food cultures and rituals. Very very interesting!

  11. Love this book – read it on holiday a couple of years ago and passed it to my mother for her holiday delight

  12. I already own a copy so no need to enter me in the competition but just wanted to back you up in saying what a brilliant book it is. Beautifully written.

  13. Sounds like the perfect read for my holiday
    :-) If I don’t win I’ll defo seek it out! Great review and look forward to seeing how the recipe goes!

  14. Love that you’ve included your view on books in your blog – so relevant. I enjoyed reading your blog and would love to read the book, so I’ll get it even if I don’t win it.

    Hope to see you again soon. It’s been a while since Hawksmoor opened for brunch!

  15. gastrogeek says

    I”ve been meaning to read this for so long now, you’ve convinced me to get on with it! Thanks :)

  16. Ruth Reichl’s books have been on my wish list for some time now, I’ve heard rave reviews about them. This would be a great excuse to finally read one!

  17. I love they way Ruth Reichl writes, and really enjoyed this book too. Am just about to start on “Comfort me with Apples” too. Lovely review!

  18. Art Vandelay says


    You write like a dream and obviously cook like an angel.

    And you are obviously extremely cute………

    Does flattery give me a better chance of winning?? I could continue if you wish…



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  20. Am devouring books at the moment (just finished “Cake – A Global History” and “Gluten-free Girl” )and would love to soak up the memoirs of “The Secret Life of a Food Critic” – fingers crossed!

    Caroline :-)

  21. I just finished this book and enjoyed her moral dilemmas and the description of the shabby NYT offices and also the way she turned the invisibility of older women to her advantage.

    AND no sexualy references or profanity, which I certainly don’t object to in the right circumstances, in her food similies which is most refreshing. Giles Coren take note.

    I ‘m going to make her NY Cheesecake the next time I need to gain a stone.

    Great blog, by the way, if I was still in London I ‘d be stalking you.

  22. I LOVE this book; it’s intimate and warm and poignant and very funny. Great idea to write it up. Two other favourites are Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” which are completely different – much more male and in your face (and written from the perspective of those in the kitchen rather than at the table) – but equally revealing and brilliant. Please write these up too!

  23. Sharon says

    I love the sounds of this book. I’m going to pick it up next week (if I don’t win it first!).
    What I like about food books is the way they show just how interwoven the simple sustenance of food is in our everyday lives. Not only do we eat when we’re hungry. We eat (and drink!) to celebrate, comfort and console. Sometimes it’s lobster and champers and other times it’s a juicy red tomato in a cheese sandwich. Yum!
    (I’d better stop writing now. I’m making myself hungry!)

  24. This sounds a very interesting read – would love to have a proper look. I like food memoirs in general, but the behind-the-scenes aspect of this one sounds especially entertaining, as well as the ability to critique the critic, as it were, by trying out the recipes!

  25. Paulette says

    I’ve just recently discovered a love for cooking and food exploration. This book sounds delightful. I’m going to pick up a copy regardless!

  26. I’ve enjoyed food memoirs for a long time, but I’ve never read one by a critic. This one has been in and out of my ‘wishlist’ for months, I’ll definitely be buying it if I don’t win here.

    Thanks for holding the competition Niamh!

  27. Love the sound of this, definitely going to add it to my list of must reads. Fascinated by how the two items of the title connect!

  28. Manuel says

    I like the look of it….critics bother me….I do wish they would stick to reviewing the food, service etc and not go on long winded and pointless rants about shit n stuff that is not required in a restaurant review…


    I dunno either..

    carry on…

  29. Ages ago, I read Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone,” which also – I’m pretty sure – described her stint at the NYT as the restaurant critic (that was the first time I’d read about all the disguises and credit cards in different names that anonymous critics sometimes use).

    I’m curious how this latest book differs from that earlier memoir.

  30. Denis says

    Hi Niamh,
    Great post!
    Can’t wait to read the review when you try the recipes!

  31. Sarah mia says

    I’ve never actually read a food critic book, but this sounds wonderful :)

  32. This book has been on my wishlist for some time because I liked the premise. Reading your review i think it sounds a must read! please enter me in the competition but if I’m not the lucky one thank you for the review anyway

  33. amydavies says

    I can’t imagine life as a food critic, would it kill your passion for food or kill it dead? Intrigued by this book, love to read it :)

  34. Hatti says

    This book sounds like an amazing read! If I don’t win it I shall have to buy it.
    Can I recommend a recipe memoir I read recently ‘Apricots on the Nile’ by Collette Rossant. It is the story, with delicious sounding recipes, of the authors childhood in Egypt – writing so evocative, written by someone who really understands the power of food on our memories!

  35. Maybe we should set up a Recommend a Food Book Club! Sounds an interesting read (I must admit I’ve not heard about it).

  36. I really enjoyed this book. Ruth Reichl is such a character and I always agree with everything she says (Momofukku New York was her favorite restaurant at some point and she couldn’t have been more right). I just got Molly Wizenberg’s book today. I liked her blog style – so I am hoping the book will also be good!

  37. Food memoirs… have you read, Dear Olivia and Dear Francesca by Mary Contini of the great Edinburgh foodie family, Valvona and Crolla?

  38. Thanks for the review — I’m so glad to see Reichl has a book out. I’ve really missed her voice since Gourmet folded and I’ve been looking forward to picking this up.

Over to you! Your comments - I would love to hear from you :)