Books: Garlic and Sapphires

Garlic and Sapphires isn’t the sort of book I’d probably have read if the library hadn’t been closed last week (due to water damage from a recent storm). But I mentioned to a friend in Toastmasters that what I really missed was access to their audiobooks, since I listen to books on CD during my daily commute (45 minutes each way). And he offered to let me use the audiobook he had just finished and hadn’t yet returned to the library.

He acknowledged that it wasn’t my sort of book (after a few years of hearing each other’s speeches you get to know a fair amount about what they like and don’t like), and I have to admit that the idea of a book written by a restaurant critic did not exactly grab my interest. But between the fact that the audiobook I had planned to listen to next was currently unavailable until the library reopened, and that one of the books in this 2017 Reading Challenge is “a book about food,” I decided to give it a try.

It was a great choice. I really enjoyed the book, and plan to read more of her books (besides memoirs, she has also written a novel). The book is partly about food, yes, but more than that it’s about people and how they treat each other. It’s about how appearances shape our perception of each other and how we treat them, and how our own appearance can change our perception ourselves and our behavior.

Ruth Reichl started using a disguise to go to a restaurant so that she wasn’t immediately recognized as the restaurant critic for the New York Times and given special treatment not available to ordinary restaurant-goers. This enabled her to identify with Times readers who had been treated like “nobodies” at fancy restaurants, as well as ensuring she ate the same food as most people at the restaurant, rather than specially selected items intended to insure the restaurant got a high rating.

What surprised me – and her also, I guess – was how easily she slid into the different personae she created. Her voice changed, her whole demeanor changed, and the way she treated other people changed, as well as, of course, the way they treated her. She was pleased to discover one very nice person that had apparently been hiding inside her, but dismayed at how easily she could also become someone overbearing and nasty.

As I’ve never tried to completely change my appearance in that way, I can’t say how I would act. But considering how difficult I find it when acting in a play to make my character act in any ways fundamentally different from how I would act, I can’t see how it would be easier if I were trying act as a different person off the stage. I can imagine acting differently. But when it comes to actually opening my mouth, or using body language to convey my attitude, it doesn’t come out at all the way I had imagined.

Reichl talks (in an interview included with the audiobook) about how important appearances are. We might talk about not judging a book by its cover, or a person by their appearance, but we do. Reichl’s conclusion is that it is important to give considerable attention to our appearance because it has such an affect on how people perceive us and treat us.

There are circumstances when I would agree with her. For a job interview, for instance, or in other situations where first impressions count so much, because if you don’t make a good first impression you won’t get a chance to show people the “real” you. And there’s no reason to be sloppy in appearance or personal hygiene.

But what about trying to help people see past appearances? The fact that it takes considerable effort and that some people won’t bother doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. Perhaps I’m just trying to justify my lack of interest in style or cosmetics (I wear a little bit of makeup and dye my hair because my husband asked me to), but there are people who can’t change aspects of their appearance (e.g. a woman at church with Down Syndrome, one reader of this blog with Moebius syndrome). I’d rather have people learn to see appearances as less important, rather than just conclude that people judge by appearances so it’s important to look the way you want to be perceived.

Of course, Reichl does spend time talking about food. I don’t know if her ability to enjoy food, including various nuances of taste and texture that might be lost on me, has to do with a natural ability, acquired sensibilities, or perhaps just more access to really well-prepared food. I’ve been a highly rated restaurant on a business trip, and frankly I didn’t enjoy the food all that much. Rather than enjoying new tastes and textures, I wished for food without strange seasonings and names I couldn’t pronounce.

I do like trying new things. I generally make a practice of getting the special of the day when eating out, unless it is out of my price range. I have usually enjoyed what I end up with. (Of course, the restaurants I can afford do not generally have anything very unusual or exotic.) When I traveled in Europe as a college student, I happily ate tripe, tongue, and other foods that some of my American classmates did not want to touch (or wished they had not if they found out what it was after eating some). Though I have to admit, I never got to like octopus, and ate fried squid sandwiches only because they were cheap.

Perhaps I would be more adventurous with food if I were a better cook. I’ve learned over the years the things that come out well when I cook them and those which don’t, and I tend to stick to a fairly limited range of fairly simple items that come out predictably tasty – at least by the standards of my family. I found myself wondering, as I listened to the chapter on shopping for the best ingredients, whether I would try harder if I had access to those kinds of stores. But that’s one of the differences between a big city like New York and living in rural Iowa. And there’s a great deal I prefer about rural Iowa, particularly open spaces and quiet.

Besides, I really do enjoy the food at Culver’s (which does not have any restaurants in New York or the surrounding states). It may be fast food, but it’s the best tasting fast food around in my opinion, and I’ll happily go there just to enjoy the food even if I have lots of time.

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