[5 June 2014]
Ruth Reichl’s resume puts yours to shame. Reichl has spent her long career in food, variously, as the New York Times restaurant critic, cookbook author, memoirist and, for a glorious decade, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. After Gourmet was abruptly shut down by publisher Condé Nast in 2009 (!), nobody would have blamed Reichl had she retired to a gorgeous home, complete with fabulous kitchen and sprawling garden.Instead, she parlayed a lifetime’s worth of foodie gossip into this confection of a first novel, Delicious!.
Wilhemina “Billie” Breslin has dropped out of UC Berkeley for New York City and the offices of Delicious! magazine, where she will be editor Jake Newberry’s assistant. But when Jake asks her to cook, Billie has a panic attack, setting a glitzy, bustling plot into motion.
Billie is leaving more than her spot at The Daily Cal behind. There’s her family, for starters: her mother, who died when Billie was an infant, her father, her Aunt Melba, and her older sister Genie. Genie is perfect: with a headful of blonde tresses and violet eyes, she could be on loan from a beachy summer romance.
However, Genie is more than just pretty. A talented artist and baker, Genie’s plans include law school. But something about the perfect girl is highly imperfect.
Meek Billie is nothing like her glamorous sibling. Her eyes are hidden behind outsized glasses, her hair is a messy mop, her figure a mystery beneath billowing, nondescript garments. She does have a perfect palate, able to pick up the faintest breath of cardamom, ginger, or curry, rapidly impressing her new colleagues at Delicious!.
Soon Billie, dubbed “Gingerbread Girl” for the spice cake she manages to bake Jake, is whirled into a fairy tale where no chef in New York City is ever too busy to make time for a neophyte magazine assistant. Thus, cheesemonger Sal Fontanari sweeps Billie up for a gastronomic tour of the city, taking her to meet Thursday Brown, renowned chef of The Pig, famous for her gnocchi and chicken liver toasts. There’s a butchering lesson from Benny, who looks “like an aging prizefighter” and a visit to chocolatier Kim Wong, who invites Billie into her studio. “I know you’re a chocolate lover. I can always tell. I’m about to temper chocolate. I have my own method; want to watch?”
When she’s not filling Billie’s mouth with chocolates, Kim is “dancing with a molten river of chocolate” which Billie finds more entrancing than any ballet. The afternoon finishes with a visit to Sal’s store, where Billie is plied with cheese and a job offer, though Sal doesn’t trust his shop to outsiders. Billie, we’re to understand, is special.
Meanwhile, in the offices of Delicious!, Reichl has conjured up a host of wacky-but-loveable characters. There’s Jake, Billie’s handsome editor, and his smoothie-loving dog, Sherman. There’s Maggie, the monstrously mean executive food editor, Diana, a pretty cook who rapidly befriends Billie, and Sammy, the older gay travel editor. One could try and figure out who the characters are modeled on; those closer to Reichl and the New York food scene likely already know. The rest of us will have to settle for Thursday Brown impersonating April Bloomfield.
Billie’s primary job duty is honoring the Delicious! guarantee. When the magazine began publication, nearly 100 years ago, the publishers tried to keep readers with the promise that any failed recipe would have a money-back guarantee: send in your receipts, and get reimbursed the cost of your ingredients. Now the descendants of the original publishing family, the Pickwicks, still hold to the original promise. And it’s up to Billie to take the indignant telephone calls, listening sympathetically to disastrous outcomes and demands for money back.
One caller in particular, a Mrs. Cloverly, is meant to amuse but soon becomes ridiculous. An elderly woman from Ohio, she substitutes canned clams for scallops, powdered milk for cream, water for wine, and inevitably telephones Billie, claiming the results are “vile”. The joke soon wears thin.
Just as you’re beginning to realize Delicious! is sort of trashy, and that you’re sucked in, anyway, Thanksgiving gives way to Christmas in the story and, just as it did in 2009, some bad men in expensive suits make a decision that has a lasting impact on a lot of lives. Delicious! is shut down.
When Gourmet closed, legions of readers felt like they lost a dear friend. The 17th of the months rolls around and five years later, we still feel a pang when Gourmet fails to appear in our mailboxes.
Reichl has said very little about Gourmet’s closure; obviously, she can’t. Delicious! is her chance to give readers a glimpse, and it’s a hard look. Reading the passages about the magazine’s abrupt closure, about the staff being literally shoved out the door, forced even to leave their personal property in the building, is very difficult.
At Delicious! only Billie, kept on to respond to reader calls about the guarantee, has a job, plus her weekend stint at Fontanari’s. Between answering recipe calls, she begins nosing around the building’s library, finding a secret room. Within that room she unearths a correspondence dating back to World War II.
Twelve-year-old Lulu Swan of Ohio wrote to James Beard, inserted by Reichl onto the Delicious! masthead. Swan is precocious and intrepid, a keen young cook trying to keep her small family together. News of her father, fighting in Europe, is scant. We learn he’s been shot down, but his whereabouts are unknown. Lulu, meanwhile, has become a deft forager of milkweed and morels. She defies her mother and teachers, befriending the neighboring Italian family, the Cappuzzellis, learning from Mrs. Cappuzzelli how to make red sauce and pumpkin ravioli.
The letters set Billie on a determined quest to find their author. Yes, Lulu Swan might be in her eighties, her name might be different, but she could be alive out there somewhere.
On the way to finding Lulu there are the necessary components to the trashy novel with the nearly happy ending: a romantic interest, an excellent haircut, a new wardrobe (Including the words every woman longs to hear at such moments: “You’re so thin!”), painful family discoveries, death, marriage, but no babies, perhaps marking the delineation between a foodie novel and a romance novel.
I cannot lie and say that Delicious! is a great novel. Yet it’s a book by Ruth Reichl, one of food writing’s founders. And I cannot bear to insult her. She’s a terrific writer. And you’ll keep reading, guiltily, perhaps, but I bet you won’t put it down. I didn’t.
Let us say instead that Delicious! is a romp: silly, foodie fun for those who wanting a quick break from serious reading without romance novels cluttering up their beach blankies (or their brains). And when it comes to writing about food, nobody does it better:
“Sammy had roasted calamari until the tentacles were crunchy little bits, the bodies tender as velvet. Then he bathed them in a smooth pool of aioli.”
“...the cake was delicate and airy, the flavor rich, buttery, not too sweet.”
“The soufflé came out high and golden. Each crisp leaf of lettuce glistened with the faintest sheen of oil…The food was perfect.”
The decision is yours. You can stay safely on the moral high ground, and give Delicious! a pass. Or you can have a bit of fun with a bit of fluff. Either way, you gotta admire Reichl’s guts: she’s always willing to try something new.