Today I had the great Silver Lining of hearing Ruth Reichl speak as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures Program. She is a beloved authority on foodie culture, the former Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine and recipient of six James Beard Awards for food writing. And she is cool.
She told the story about her evolution as a food critic in New York, specifically at the New York Times. How she had to literally become a different person, Molly Hollis, when she went to restaurants so that the proprieters and chefs did not recognize her (and therefore roll out the red carpet in order to get a good review in the New York Times).
One of her first critiques at the NYT was of famed Le Cirque. She described two of her visits there, once as Molly Hollis and once as herself, Ruth Reichl: The New York Times Food Critic.
When she went as Molly Hollis (with a friend), she felt as though the maitre d’ was disappointed to have her as a guest (her disguise transformed her from a chic New York urbanite to a 30-lb heavier retired English teacher from Birmingham, Michigan who wore a used beige Armani suit and a short, straight ash brown wig). She commented to her friend that she was “going to learn a lot from being someone else.”
As Molly, she was treated poorly at Le Cirque. VERY poorly. For example, she had to wait an inordinate amount of time for a table despite having a reservation. She was seated in the smoking section (when they still had smoking sections) despite requesting the non-smoking section. The waiter neglected to offer the special seasonal menu offered to the man sitting next to them. Additionally, having only read only 3 pages of the wine list, it was snatched from her and given to a man three tables down from hers.
Ruth said that she wondered if their atrocious treatment was because they were two women or whether they were tourists. Regardless of the reason, at the end of her night as Molly, Ruth felt “frumpy, powerless and humiliated.”
When she was recognized as Ruth Reichl: The New York Times Food Critic, however, it was as if the seas parted, she said. This time, the maitre d’ said, “the King of Spain is waiting for a table, but for you, the table is ready.” Oh, and this is arriving nearly an hour early for her reservation. She went on to say, “When I was discovered, the change was startling. Everything improved: the seating, the service, the size of the portions.” Quite shocking. And (sadly) not.
Details about her secret life of a critic in disguise (including her NYT Review of Le Cirque) can be found in her book, Garlic and Sapphire.
The experience of today has stayed with me. Really stuck. In part because Ruth is a warm, funny and engaging person who laughs easily. But mostly because of her identification of the reality of how people are judged by appearance.
This immediately made me think of Susan Boyle.
No one in a million years would have imagined the miraculous and heavenly sounds that would appear when Susan Boyle opened her mouth.
It is human instinct to jude by appearances, I suppose. In a world typified by snap decisions, people rarely devote the time necessary to gain true knowledge before passing judgment on people. This fact is both unfortunate and regrettable for distorted images of reality stem from failures in gaining knowledge of those around us.
I am feeling the effects of those snap judgments firsthand.
For example, last night, Finally Five and I went out for dinner (at 5:30 of course, because we both head to bed by 7:00 – at the latest!). When Finally Five went to the restroom (“I’m a big girl now and can go by myself” or so I was told) I sent a text to The HOTY telling him that scarf stares were rampant. “F-bomb them,” he said.
I felt like I was channeling my inner “Molly”. I recognize the fact that I am now in a unique position to acknowledge the feelings resulting from direct (mostly nonverbal) judgments. They ain’t so great. I know many people with cancer (or other health challenges) who are paralyzed by these judgments. Who refuse to leave their Isolation Island because the stares and judgment add too much insult to the existing injury.
Fortunately, I have the wherewithal to know that people judge others by their appearance because they are either unwise or they don’t know better.
I imagine that most of us have been “Molly” at one point or another in our lives (with or without a health challenge). For that, I’m sad.
However, (you know a SL is coming!) if we have been “Molly” then we are in a unique (albeit painful) position with an opportunity to learn, to change the way we react (i.e., judge) when we meet people. Sometimes the best lessons are learned in the toughest of times. Well, let’s just say that I’m getting a big, fat education right now…and that is a real SL!
Assumptions allow the best in life to pass you by.
– John Sales