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Her debut novel will be released May 2014
The former Gourmet editor dips her hand in fiction.
Looks like Ruth Reichl will join the ranks of Anthony Bourdain in the chef-writer arena and publish not one, but three novels with Random House, The New York Times reports.
According to a press release, the first novel, titled Delicious!, will feature "a young woman who discovers a cache of secret letters written by a girl during World War II and, inspired by them, finally comes to terms with her own family’s tragedy." While there doesn't seem to be any mention of food in the bleak synopsis, we're sure the title is an allusion to some form of cooking.
Reichl, who was named editor-at-large for Random House in 2010, already had three books on her docket when the partnership was announced. Delicious!, as well as The Tao of Ruth (a reportedly Anthony Bourdain-inspired cookbook), as well as a memoir of Reichl's tenure at Gourmet.
As for this foray into fiction, it's natural that Reichl is a "born storyteller," Susan Kamil, Random House publisher, said in a statement. "I’m addicted to fiction, and I’ve always wanted to write a novel," Reichl said in a statement. So dining critic, cookbook author, television personality, and fiction writer? That woman wears many hats (literally and figuratively).
'Delicious!' . Isn't
The exclamation point in its title is a clear tipoff: Delicious!, Ruth Reichl's first novel, is about as subtle as a Ring Ding. It's an enthusiastic but cloyingly sentimental story about a 21-year-old who finds happiness by making peace with her past — namely, her crippling, self-deprecating hero-worship of her older sister. After much angst, she comes to realize that "it was finally time to stop running from the best in me."
As expected from the last editor of the late great Gourmet magazine and the author of such beloved foodie memoirs as Tender at the Bone and Garlic and Sapphires, cooking is central to Reichl's novel. Billie Breskin, her young narrator, is blessed with the culinary equivalent of perfect pitch — an acutely fine-tuned palate that can pick out notes of obscure spices like curry leaf from a complex sauce. Yet because of a traumatic experience (which we of course learn about in due time), she has dropped out of college and fled the thriving Cake Sisters baking business she and her sister started as kids in Santa Barbara, Calif. Just the thought of cooking causes Reichl's distressed heroine panic attacks.
Hoping to write instead, Billie gets her dream job as an editorial assistant at Delicious! magazine in Manhattan, reflecting on her good fortune "to have landed in the one place on earth where recipes were taken this seriously." The dream job is housed in a dream location, a lovely Federal-style mansion built in the 1830s on a "tree-lined street" in Greenwich Village. But, as Robert Frost noted, nothing gold can stay. Just like that — and just like what happened to Reichl and her staff at Gourmet — the publisher, Young Arthur (not Sulzberger) pulls the plug on Delicious! magazine. In one of the book's less plausible developments, Billie is kept on alone in the deserted mansion to continue fielding complaints from readers, honoring the Delicious! money-back guarantee on recipes that don't work as promised.
This confection might play better with Young Adult readers. Its best parts involve a series of cunningly hidden letters written to the illustrious chef James Beard during World War II by a plucky adolescent named Lulu Swan, who is suffering homefront hardships in Akron, Ohio. Reichl whips up plenty of righteous indignation as Lulu (and Billie, 70 years later) discover upsetting injustices, including wartime prejudice against Italian-Americans, women losing their factory jobs after the men return home from battle, and the "Lavender Scare" against homosexuals in the 1950s that cost Reichl's version of Beard his fictional job at Delicious! magazine.
Ruth Reichl: Dining In Disguise And Going 'Gourmet'
Reichl's book, in part a paean to the foodie heaven of downtown Manhattan, is filled with a cast of cookie cutter eccentrics who nudge her ugly duckling heroine toward becoming the swan she's meant to be (like Lulu Swan, of course). These include an older gay art director whose affected, pompous, contraction-free speech makes us contract in disbelief. ("Do not be delicate." "Have you the key?" "Loneliness is pernicious . We will commence . dining together on a regular basis.") Sal Fontanari, owner of an iconic Italian grocery where Billie helps out on weekends, is straight from central casting.
Some descriptions read like spoofs of Reichl's scene-setting restaurant reviews: "Her boots were made of the softest leather, the kind that melts beneath a single drop of snow." Is this a good thing? Autumn Parmesan is distinguished from spring cheese with raptures more often associated with wine-tasting: "When I put the cheese in my mouth it was richer, and if I let it linger on my tongue I could taste the lush fields of late summer, just as the light begins to die." As for Billie's inamorato, "His breath smelled like fruit, like oranges and cherries" — despite his steady diet of garlicky cured meats from Fontanari's. If this doesn't make you gag, the love scenes surely will: "He kissed me roughly, hungrily, and I could feel my lips begin to swell as my body arched toward him."
Delicious!, as predictably sweet as packaged cakes, ends on a high note — with Billie's much-hyped gingerbread recipe, which calls for lots of fresh ginger and orange juice and grinding your own spices, including cinnamon. The recipe is a reminder about where Reichl's real talents lie.
Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
I finished Reading Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl and immediately copied half of the recipes in the book.
This is my first Ruth Reichl book and I liked it quite a bit. I’m usually attracted to books about food and restaurants, behind the scenes stuff and recipes included are a bonus. Ruth is the known for being an editor at Gourmet magazine and a food critic. If you are in the restaurant business then you know what the critics look like. You have their photo posted in the kitchen most likely so they will get the star treatment.
In Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth disguises her appearance so she will get a true impression of the food and service quality. There are many hilarious scenes where she can view what’s going on in the restaurant and the wait staff pay her no mind, as she is just another diner. The Windows of the World restaurant experience was well written – very funny.
It’s clear Ruth has a passion for food and shares this in her reviews of the food and service. Good memoir, I would certainly read another of Ruth’s books.
THIS is a combination of three recipes.
We love Nigella’s Brandied Bacon chicken. And we also love Jamie Oliver’s Lemony Roasted chicken with the crispy roasted potatoes. Combine those two with Ruth Reichl’s Roast chicken with potatoes, Onions and Garlic from the chapter A Frugal Repast For Betty.
November Book Club Pick: Delicious by Ruth Reichl
I confess that I started the Peanut Blossom Book Club for Recovering Readers as a way to ensure that I make time for reading myself. Without our lovely group, it is quite possible I'd read less than 1 or 2 books in any given year. Last fall I got ambitious and tried to read an 'in-between' book pick. I got several chapters in and loved it but had to pause to get to the official monthly pick by our deadline. You can guess what happened next. . . that book is still sitting on my shelf unread.
Since I loved the first few chapters so much and want to see how it ends, I chose Delicious by Ruth Reichl as our November pick! This cute foodie-centric book feels like just the right choice as we head into some of the biggest foodie holidays of the whole year!
Check out the full book description for Delicious :
"Ruth Reichl is a born storyteller. Through her restaurant reviews, where she celebrated the pleasures of a well-made meal, and her bestselling memoirs that address our universal feelings of love and loss, Reichl has achieved a special place in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of readers. Now, with this magical debut novel, she has created a sumptuous, wholly realized world that will enchant you.
Billie Breslin has traveled far from her home in California to take a job at Delicious!, New York’s most iconic food magazine. Away from her family, particularly her older sister, Genie, Billie feels like a fish out of water—until she is welcomed by the magazine’s colorful staff. She is also seduced by the vibrant downtown food scene, especially by Fontanari’s, the famous Italian food shop where she works on weekends. Then Delicious! is abruptly shut down, but Billie agrees to stay on in the empty office, maintaining the hotline for reader complaints in order to pay her bills.
To Billie’s surprise, the lonely job becomes the portal to a miraculous discovery. In a hidden room in the magazine’s library, Billie finds a cache of letters written during World War II by Lulu Swan, a plucky twelve-year-old, to the legendary chef James Beard. Lulu’s letters provide Billie with a richer understanding of history, and a feeling of deep connection to the young writer whose courage in the face of hardship inspires Billie to comes to terms with her fears, her big sister and her ability to open her heart to love."
And then go grab a copy of Delicious here so you can join us for our book club discussion on November 17. Be sure to RSVP here!
BEA 2014: Ruth Reichl: A Delicious Debut into Fiction
Ruth Reichl joins the wildly popular novelists Jodi Picoult and Kathy Reichs on a panel about bestsellers. It is a topic that the former New York Times restaurant critic knows well with a career that has spanned four decades with a multitude of bestselling cookbooks and memoirs, including Tender to the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples. Newer to Reichl is the novel. When it came time to try her hand at fiction, Reichl says she was not sure she was up to the task.
&ldquoWhen you are in a bad place in your life, you do the hardest thing you can think of I tried to write fiction,&rdquo says Reichl. That &ldquobad place&rdquo included the closing of Gourmet magazine in 2009, where Reichl had been editor-in-chief for a decade, following her distinguished career at the New York Times and earlier at the Los Angeles Times.
&ldquoWith journalism, basically you know the story and it&rsquos just a matter of how you tell it,&rdquo she explains. &ldquoWith fiction you have to find the story. And if it&rsquos working, you fall in love with your characters.&rdquo
Delicious! is Reichl&rsquos debut novel and while writing it, she admits to falling in love with her main character, Billie Breslin: &ldquoI got up every morning excited to find out what was going to happen to her.&rdquo
Breslin is an intrepid 21-year-old who leaves her California family to take a job at a new food magazine (which eventually folds) in New York, where she finds herself immersed in Gotham&rsquos world of foodies. She takes a part-time job at an Italian cheese store, where she stumbles upon the WWII correspondence between a young Ohio woman and James Beard. Aside from the fact that Billie works for a food magazine that folds, and crisscrosses the country, the author says Billie is nothing like her.
&ldquoIf anything, I am more like Lulu,&rdquo she says, the fictional young woman in Ohio who wrote to James Beard requesting recipes using food rations.
While Reichl is no stranger to Beard&mdashshe has won the prestigious award that bears his name four times&mdashshe was not crazy enough to try and write letters for him. &ldquoHe appears through Lulu&rsquos letters,&rdquo she explains. But Reichl dug deep into Beard&rsquos wartime experiences and did lots of research about victory gardens and rationing. &ldquoIt&rsquos the only time in America that we all sat down at the same table,&rdquo says Reichl. &ldquoFood was really considered one of the fronts in the war.&rdquo
Beyond Lulu, there&rsquos a bit of Reichl in the character who is the cheese shop owner who can&rsquot imagine anyone ever leaving New York. &ldquoI did not even realize I was writing a love letter to New York until I was done,&rdquo says Reichl. And now that she&rsquos finished her first novel, readers can expect more fiction from her. &ldquoIt&rsquos like flying&rdquo is how Reichl describes writing fiction.
Ruth Reichl Ditches the Wigs for a New Disguise: Fiction
I see on your Twitter that you ate lobster for breakfast. I did. They were claws left over from dinner the other night.
Are you surprised by Twitter’s interest in your food diary? Totally. I discovered that I really loved the discipline of 140 characters. It was a complete surprise to me that you could really paint a portrait of a moment.
You edited Gourmet for a decade, until it closed, while Condé Nast’s other food magazine, Bon Appétit, continued to publish. Have you checked it out? I don’t know if they do Bon Appétit by focus group or not, but that’s what it feels like. You don’t want to give people what they want. Give them something that they didn’t know that they wanted.
Bon Appétit has a kind of masculine bent these days. It seems smart to me to do that. Cooking isn’t just women’s work anymore.
What food trend do you hate the most? I don’t think I hate any food trends.
That can’t be true. All right, here’s one. The noise in restaurants is insane. I’ve been to a couple of restaurants in L.A. that were so loud, I left there with a sore throat you literally could not have a conversation. I think it’s very deliberate: There’s this idea that somehow it’s more fun if there’s a roar in the room.
Did you see the celebrity-chef craze coming? When I was the food editor of the L.A. Times — this had to have been in ’88, maybe — we did a cover with Wolfgang Puck in a convertible: “Say goodbye to the celebrity chef!” I mean, how wrong can you be?
Your first novel, “Delicious!” will be published this week. Until now, you’ve written cookbooks and memoirs. How has writing about your life changed it? There’s something about putting yourself on the page where suddenly you walk through the world with a lot of friends. I meet people, and we can get past small talk pretty quickly if they’ve read my books. It’s a great shortcut.
Why did you decide to write a novel? I had always said if I didn’t have a day job, I would write a novel, and so there it was: I didn’t have a day job I better write a novel.
In “Delicious!” there are notable similarities between your protagonist, Billie Breslin, and you. She’s a Californian who works for a food magazine that closes abruptly, much as Gourmet did. Is this a roman à clef? I don’t think so. Every first novel is supposedly autobiographical, so I thought, This character is not going to be me. I was intent on making her the anti-Ruth. But look, you can only write what you know.
I also noticed that all the sex scenes have food in them. I wasn’t even aware that I was doing that until my editor said: “Ooh! They’re eating ice cream in bed.”
Billie breaks her first big story in the novel. What was your first break? My editor at New West came to my restaurant and said: “You’re a better writer than our restaurant critic, and you can cook. Have you thought about being a restaurant critic?” We were so poor, I was just thinking: I’m going to get one free meal, how fantastic! Instead of writing a straight restaurant review, I wrote a short story that had the review running through it. They loved it.
You were known for wearing wigs as a critic. Now that you don’t, are you frequently recognized? When it happens, it’s really fun. I’ll go to the supermarket, and someone will come up to me and say, “What should I do with this?”
Have you ever lost your desire to cook, as Billie does? No, in fact my next book starts with the closing of Gourmet, and it’s pretty much a memoir of how cooking saved me. In the year after it closed, I just went into the kitchen and started cooking.
It has to be affirming that your readers followed you through that process, on your blog. Don’t tell me that. I think of my blog as something nobody reads.
Ruth Reichl’s Gingerbread from “Delicious”
I have loved every one of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs all filled with warmth, humor and wonderful recipes. Her latest book is her first novel, starring a woman named Billie, who, like Ruth lost her job when her legendary food magazine’s publisher decided to close up shop. (“Delicious” in the book, “Gourmet” magazine in real life.) Of course food plays a big part in this novel as well, but this latest best-seller only contains one recipe – Billie’s Gingerbread. It’s referred to off and on in the story and finally given to us on the last page. My first reaction was the same as yours -this better be good. You be the judge!
Billie introduces the recipe by saying, ” I have so many memories wrapped up in this cake. All I have to do is start grating ginger and I’m ten years old again…..Is my gingerbread as good as the one my mother made? How could I possibly know? But I do know this: it’s good enough.”
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter at room temperature.
2 large pieces fresh ginger root (1/4 cup, tightly packed, when finely grated)
zest from 2 to 3 oranges (1 1/2 tsp. finely grated)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 6-cup Bundt pan.
Grind your peppercorns, cloves and cardamom and measure our 1/4 tsp. of each. (You can use pre-ground spices but the cake won’t taste as good.)
Grind your cinnamon stick and measure out 1 tsp. (Again, you can use ground cinnamon if you must.) Whisk the flour with the baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt in a small bowl.
In another small bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolk into the sour cream. Set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer until the mixture is light, fluffy, and almost white. This should take about 3 minutes.
Grate the ginger root -this is a lot of ginger- and the orange zest. Add them to the butter/sugar mixture.
Beat the flour mixture and egg mixture, alternating between the two, into the butter until each addition is incorporated. The batter should be as luxurious as mousse.
Spoon batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until cake is golden and a wooden skewer comes out clean.
Remove to a rack and cool in the pan for 10 minutes.
While the cake cools in its pan, simmer the bourbon and the sugar in a small pot for about 4 minutes. It should reduce to about 1/3 cup.
While the cake is still in the pan, brush half the bourbon mixture onto its exposed surface (the bottom of the cake) with a pastry brush. Let the syrup soak in for a few minutes, then turn the cake out onto a rack. Gently brush the remaining mixture all over the cake.
3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted or put through a strainer
Once the cake is cooled, mix the sugar with the orange juice and either drizzle the glaze randomly over the cake or put it into a squeeze bottle and do a controlled drizzle.
Note: I felt guilty not grinding my spices sorry Ruth. She suggests making this a day ahead and wrapping in plastic for flavors to intensify. This is not a heavy cake as often gingerbreads are, but spicy with a lovely light crumb. I served it with fresh berries and it was a hit!
Adding an update on january 15th 2015… Billie’s job after the magazine was closed was to continue to answer readers requests for recipes, which was something Gourmet magazine was known for. I have just found among my Mother’s treasure trove of recipe clippings just such a request and their response! It is undated, but the stationery is so of another era and the photocopied recipe scotch taped to the page, so you know it is ancient.
THE VANISHING HALF
by Brit Bennett ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 2, 2020
Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.
The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark. Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.
Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.
Delicious!: Ruth Reichl's First Novel + Her Recipe for Gingerbread
There was much anticipation for the publication last month of Ruth Reichl's first novel, Delicious! — no surprise, considering that she is one of the most acclaimed food writers of our time. Her impressive resume includes serving as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and editor-in-chief for Gourmet magazine for 10 years, as well as writing three best-selling memoirs.
Reichl told USA Today that she was eager to try her hand at fiction, “but I wasn't sure I could do it. I wanted to try to do the hardest thing I could think of to do. It was a way to get out of my depression after the closing of Gourmet.”
How successful was Reichl? Well, it depends on which review you favor. Oprah.com found the book “compulsively readable … a delectable mix of flavor, fantasy and emotional comfort food.” But the Washington Post, while calling the book amiable, with its heart in the right place, described it as “a surprisingly amateurish performance for a writer as skilled and versatile as Reichl.” ]
The New York Times devoted two reviews to the book. The weekday assessment was harsh (“feebly written and idea-free”), meting out praise only for the one recipe in the novel: “It's a food novel that never made me hungry. Except for that recipe at the end. … I'm going to tear that page out.”
In contrast, The New York Times' Sunday book review praised the characters, the brisk plot and the extensive research. This review appeared in the paper's special summer reading issue, which seems like a good call to us — we agree that this is a book to enjoy by the pool, at the beach or on a vacation plane ride.
The story focuses on young Billie Breslin, who comes to New York City to interview for a position at a prestigious food magazine, Delicious! To get the job, Billie must cook for the editor, which sends her into a full-blown panic attack. Although we are told she is an amazing cook with a perfect palate, she has a secret phobia that keeps her out of the kitchen. (The tragic origin of this phobia is one of several mysteries to be solved.) Despite her fear, Billie is able to bake her amazing gingerbread, which lands her the job. In an email to her sister, Billie notes that the editor “had to hire me if only to get the recipe.”
The sibling emails are a thread through the novel, a device to show Billie's thoughts and struggles. Her online missives also provide clues that all is not rosy in Billie's past. And, spoiler alert, the fact that her sister never emails back, or texts, or calls will probably lead you to guess a key component of what ails Billy before the book's big reveal.
Snail mail also plays a role, when Billie discovers a secret room at the magazine, housing a trove of old letters written during World War II. This fictional correspondence between unhappy 12-year-old Lulu and culinary legend James Beard is the best part of the story. Through this feisty girl, thanks to Reichl's research, we get a sense of what a challenge it was to stock the kitchen pantry during the war, requiring ingenuity and even foraging. We also learn of the widespread prejudice at that time faced by Italian Americans, to the point where spaghetti was disdained as “enemy food.”
As Billie tries to learn what happened to Lulu, she goes on an actual journey as well as a metaphorical one of self-discovery. Along the way, she gets a kick-ass makeover, a mensch of a boyfriend and, finally, some spiritual healing from her demons. While no one is likely to consider Delicious! great literature, it overall is a fun read.
At the end of the book Reichl shares Billie's recipe for the job-winning gingerbread. We got you the recipe, you know, so you don't have to tear the page out of your own book. [
From: Ruth Reichl, Delicious!
Makes: 1 cake
Whole black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 cup sour cream
1 ½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large pieces fresh ginger root (1/4 cup, tightly packed, when finely grated)
Zest from 2 to 3 oranges (1 ½ teaspoons finely grated)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 6-cup Bundt pan. Grind your peppercorns, cloves and cardamom and measure out ¼ teaspoon of each. (You can use pre-ground spices, but the cake won't taste as good.)
2. Grind your cinnamon stick and measure out 1 teaspoon. (Again, you can use ground cinnamon if you must.) Whisk the flour with the baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a small bowl. In another small bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolk into the sour cream. Set aside.
3. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer until the mixture is light, fluffy, and almost white. This should take about 3 minutes.
4. Grate the ginger root — this is a lot of ginger — and the orange zest. Add them to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat the flour mixture and the egg mixture, alternating between the two, into the butter until each addition is incorporated. The batter should be as luxurious as mousse.
5. Spoon batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until cake is golden and a wooden skewer comes out clean.
6. Remove to a rack and cool in the pan for 10 minutes.
½ cup bourbon
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
1. While the cake cools in its pan, simmer the bourbon and the sugar in a small pot for about 4 minutes. It should reduce to about 1/3 cup.
2. While the cake is still in the pan, brush half the bourbon mixture onto its exposed surface (the bottom of the cake) with a pastry brush. Let the syrup soak in for a few minutes, then turn the cake out onto a rack. Gently brush the remaining mixture all over the cake.
¾ cup powdered sugar, sifted or put through a strainer
5 teaspoons orange juice
1. Once the cake is cooled, mix the sugar with the orange juice and either drizzle the glaze randomly over the cake or put it into a squeeze bottle and do a controlled drizzle.
Excerpted from DELICIOUS! by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Canny Taste Buds and a Nose for Sleuthing
There’s only one recipe in “Delicious!,” Ruth Reichl’s first novel, but it’s a keeper. You have to flip to the back to find it. It’s for a gingerbread cake enlivened by orange zest and fresh ginger and black pepper and cloves and cardamom. It’s for grown-up taste buds.
Ms. Reichl’s novel, however, is strictly kid stuff. It’s a gauzy ode to the liberating virtues of pleasure, glazed with warmth and uplift, so feebly written and idea free that it will make you wonder if the energy we’ve been putting into food these last few decades hasn’t made us each lose, on average, a dozen I.Q. points.
Ms. Reichl has no need to prove herself as a writer. As a restaurant critic for The Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times, her columns had brightness and bite. Her several memoirs, though they require a high tolerance for earnestness, have some magic to them in the form of sexiness and truth telling. Gourmet magazine, during the decade that she edited it, bloomed. It was under her watch that it commissioned and ran “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace’s essay, an instant classic of the form.
It’s hard to know where to begin with “Delicious!” though. The verbal chloroform arrives so quickly that you’re put in mind of Mike Tyson’s observation: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
Welcome to earth mother adjectival Götterdämmerung. On just the first three pages, cakes are “Strong. Earthy. Fragrant” and “rich, moist, tender.” Scents spangle the air. Nutmeg is “delicate” yet “ferocious,” like the quiet storm radio format. Ginger is “mysteriously tingly,” cinnamon “nose-prickling,” crushed cloves filled with “startling power.” Vanilla beans are “supple, plump, purple.”
It all gets more delicate, yet more ferocious. Soon we meet a chef who is “dancing with a molten river of chocolate” that she caresses “like a lover.” One of her sweets “tasted like rain, another of the desert.” Is that a melon? A woman takes a bite and is “stunned by the roar of cantaloupe juice inside my head.” The roar in my head came from a different source.
Everything about “Delicious!” is cozy, closed off from reality, calculated to land buttered side up. It’s about a young woman from California named Billie Breslin who gets a job as executive assistant to the editor of Delicious!, a venerable food magazine that sounds not unlike Gourmet.
Billie resembles Anne Hathaway’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” She’s a frump who merely needs tailored clothes and a decent haircut to turn her into a knockout. In Ms. Reichl’s hands her makeover sounds like Olivia Newton-John’s in “Grease.” Billie gets “smoky bourbon” eyes and hair that’s “a riot of golds and bronzes winking and glittering in the light.” She becomes a pop tart.
Most of the other characters in Ms. Reichl’s novel put you in mind of “The Devil Wears Prada,” too. As she introduces them, you think: there’s Stanley Tucci. There’s Emily Blunt. Bill Nighy and Alec Baldwin, not in that film, should also text their agents.
Ms. Reichl’s descriptions of these people aren’t far from Nora Roberts’s in her romance novels. The magazine’s creative director has “olive skin, emerald eyes, and chiseled cheekbones.” Its editor is “truly great-looking the photographs captured his all-American looks.” The descriptions of everything are like this. What does snow seen from inside a window look like? A paperweight.
Billie is a precocious foodie with the keenest taste buds of her generation. “I identified hyssop and maybe myrtle and a bit of cassia,” she declares about one mouthful, “but then it got away from me.” At one point a potential suitor refers to her as SuperCheeseGirl — the title of a movie I’d pay to see.
Billie comes with a back story (dead mother, dead sister, semi-estranged father) and a trust fund. When Delicious! is forced to shut down, she becomes its last employee, performing mop-up editorial duties alone in the magazine’s office mansion. She stumbles upon a secret chamber and finds letters written by a girl to James Beard during World War II.
Finding more of these letters is a chore, because one of the magazine’s former librarians has cunningly hidden them. So the hunt is on, in a Dan Brown meets Nancy Drew sort of way. Characters spout sentences like, “The plot thickens.”
Food-world observers will get small frissons from some of the names in “Delicious!” Billie shares her surname, Breslin, with a gastro pub in Manhattan run by the chef April Bloomfield. These characters hang out at a place called The Pig — almost certainly a reference to another of Ms. Bloomfield’s restaurants, the Spotted Pig. The girl who wrote the letters to Beard is named Lulu, perhaps to honor Lulu Peyraud, a Provençal food legend. Billie’s aunt is Melba, like the toast.
Yet there’s no complicated sense of the food world in “Delicious!” It’s set in circa 2010 but exists in walled-off sitcom space. The year could almost as easily be 1980, or even 1960.
By the novel’s midpoint, life lessons are being heaved in our direction, like stones to drowning people. “There are many kinds of crime,” a wise old woman says to Billie, who’s lost her urge to cook. “I’ve always thought the most unforgivable is to have a gift and turn your back on it.” I’d rank defenestration slightly higher on the unforgivability scale, but only because I’m weird about heights.
Billie’s interior monologues are just as painful. You start to imagine Little Orphan Annie walking up to a microphone and uttering them with a catch in her throat: “I thought how much confidence it took to walk through the world with your heart on your sleeve. Hope can’t hurt. And then I thought how lucky I was to be here, to be experiencing this. Things can change in a single minute.”
Food is so complicated a topic, especially elite food. It’s tangled up with class and race and politics and resentment. Little to none of this comes into play in “Delicious!” Ms. Reichl, talking down to her audience, never allows her intellect to surface. It’s a food novel that never even made me hungry. Except for that recipe at the end, which my teenage daughter, a good baker, made the other night.