Reading is one of my guilty pleasures that I don’t get to do often enough. Except, I never feel guilty when I read–I am a firm believer that reading is good for you. I majored in English as an undergrad, and got an MA in English Literature to boot. I encourage Sous Chef to “read” and work with her (almost) daily on learning her letters and the sounds they make. I’m acutely aware of phonemes and their role in spelling and word formation, which I’m sure makes me quite a nerd. I want her to be a reader.
Yet, I don’t read for pleasure all that often. I get busy, and–let’s face it–lazy. I guess it’s a guilty pleasure because I feel guilty I don’t do it more often. There are a lot of books in my “to read” pile; books I never read in college that I, nevertheless, consider important classics. Howard’s End. Sense and Sensibility (love both movies, though!). Wuthering Heights. And there are lots of books in my “to read” pile that aren’t classics, but I’m sure are also great literature. Despite my education and professed love of literature, I just don’t read much. I wish it was a better habit. Every once in a while, I’ll get through a couple of books pretty quickly. Such was the case in early January. I read My Berlin Kitchen, a gift from my sister who knows my tastes in reading all too well, and followed it quickly with Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires. I really enjoyed My Berlin Kitchen. She related food to her place, to her home, and that’s an idea that has resonated with me since graduate school. It didn’t hurt that much of the book takes place in Europe, including Berlin and Paris. When I finished it, I hastily gave it 5 stars on goodreads, then reconsidered and gave it 4. I loved it, but knew it wasn’t perfect. Then, I jumped into Garlic and Sapphires, which has been on my shelf for a couple of years since I picked it up at Borders when they closed their brick and mortars. I hate to say it, but My Berlin Kitchen paled in comparison. I loved it, but the writing wasn’t quite as solid (Ruth Reichl has a lot more experience, so that’s not meant to reflect badly on Luisa Weiss) and the ideas were a little more developed. Don’t misunderstand–My Berlin Kitchen is a great book! I recommend it heartily, especially to anyone who loves Europe and cooking and secretly wishes they could live in Europe. But Garlic and Sapphires gave me more to think about.Reichl detailed her experience, beginning to end, of working as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. It was a book, I realized, that I really should have read while I was a graduate student focusing on food writing and autobiography. While developing alternate identities to preserve her anonymity while dining out, she finds that her personality changes to reflect the character she has adopted. She becomes petty, cloying sweet, or timidly shy depending on which outfit and wig she is wearing. The one that stuck out to me the most, though, was Betty, the invisible woman. Reichl met her on the bus when she stood to give Betty her seat and Betty leaned in and said, “thank you, dearie. No one ever stands up for me. Sometimes, I feel invisible” (206). This struck a chord with Reichl, who was going for invisible. She followed her home from the bus stop (creepy, I’ll admit) and learned her name from the buzzer on the front door. On her way to her building from the bus stop, Reichl witnessed her being ignored by store clerks in two different stores, and watched a young man tear past her so quickly that he almost knocked her over. Reichl’s suspicions were correct: she wasn’t just sometimes invisible–she was always invisible. Reichl found an outfit and a wig to recreate Betty and experienced the same treatment on her way to the restaurant as Betty had. The cab driver was inconsiderate, not one person on the street even seemed to acknowledge her, and her friend’s dinner guest, an older and distinguished woman, couldn’t hide her disdain for who she was about to dine with. She had no idea it was really Ruth Reichl, and when she found out several days later, was furious. Not helping the treatment she experienced, Reichl found herself speaking softly and with deference. When presented with a menu, she often encouraged others to order for her. Diners who were seated near her asked to be reseated. Betty was not only invisible, but people wanted her to be invisible. Betty was a huge contrast to Ruth, and the differences emphasize an important theoretical idea in autobiography: the idea of a persona. Every persona is a construction, is artificial, a fiction.
We all have different personas that we use at different times; similar to the idea of “wearing different hats.” These personas complicate the idea of an identity, though. An identity assumes one true self that is identifiable, while everything else is fake. Personas, though, are fragments of that identity, parts that are put forth for public consumption. Therefore, when Ruth put on her Betty wig, she drew out a persona that was like Ruth, but not entirely. Ruth’s Betty had features of Ruth, and certain traits became stronger. Ruth recognizes this when she became a very snarky character named Emily. She notes that “becoming Emily was distressingly easy” (293). She finishes her night as Emily with this conclusion: “It was extremely unpleasant to find how easily I had been able to summon this mean, petty person who was waiting inside me. Because if Brenda was my best self, Emily was my worst” (301). She notes this Emily was waiting inside her–a version of herself just waiting to be called upon–a persona. Reichl was in a particularly interesting position, though. She deliberately and carefully created these alternate personas and developed stories for them. True, these characters were more fictional than traditional personas, but they still had a kernel of Ruth deep inside. She had to draw her characters from some personal experience. We generally create personas with some degree of intention, but we aren’t always aware we are doing it. We can “put on a brave face” or hide part of ourselves we aren’t willing to share with others, and these decisions are consciously done and work to create a persona. But we don’t generally think about our “school persona” or our “family persona” or any other number of personas we have in our arsenal. Ruth did, though. And she recognized that they were a part of her, and she eventually tired of using these elaborate and extreme personas, choosing to give up her job at the end of the book, thus eliminating the need for the disguises. She was able to get back to her own set of personas, without worry of being “discovered.” I’m sure she was relieved to stop performing, though to an extent, we all put on performances. Always, even with ourselves. Perhaps especially with ourselves.