Ruth Reichl’s engaging books talk of her growing up years, her family and how she learned to cook. In her nonfiction titles she has written about waitressing in a restaurant where every worker was an owner and about her work as a food critic with the Los Angeles Times, as a food writer for the New York Times and as editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine.
In one of her books I remember Reichl saying she learned early on that the most important thing in life is a good story. And that’s what we get in her first novel, “Delicious.” One of the reasons I love first novels is they often have an unrestrained, unbridled, generous energy that catches and pulls the reader in like a lasso and the wild ride through character and plot is exhilarating. And when there is food at the center of the story, I’m hooked.
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By Ruth Reichl
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As a child, Billie Breslin, our heroine in “Delicious,” spends much of her time in her mother’s kitchen. Her sister Genie says, “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.” And sure enough Billie can deconstruct almost anything she tastes, including the gingerbread cake her deceased mother used to make every year for her father’s birthday. (Check out the cake’s recipe in the back of the book.)
The book opens with Billie, Genie and their Aunt Melba making cake after cake until they finally figure out the exact recipe. “It’s even better than your mother’s,” Melba tells Billie, who has inherited her mother’s natural ability in the kitchen along with her nose and delicate palate.
In Montecito, Calif., where Billie and her sister are growing up, they spend a summer making cakes to earn spending money. They quickly become somewhat famous in the area and end up having a company called The Cake Sisters. Their final cake sells for a huge amount of money, but it costs them dearly.
Eleven years later, our heroine moves to New York City and finds a job at a magazine called Delicious that operates out of the “stately, gracious, old Timbers Mansion in Greenwich Village.” Billie is an assistant to the director.
But before she is officially hired we are treated to a tour through restaurant kitchens, Italian charcuteries and farm markets. We meet cheese mongers, bakers and chocolatiers, each of them imparting their passion and knowledge. Their willingness to have in-depth conversations ultimately creates a community for Billie that we New Yorkers know and treasure.
The reader is exposed to amazing foods and herbs that include curry leaves, myrtle, cassia and hyssop. We discover Chinese blossoms called Osmanthus that are used for sweet and sour sauces and to concoct the most exquisite tea. When Billie is taken into a butcher shop, she smells the sweet mixture of sawdust that is on the floor “and the clean forest scent … mingling with the mineral aroma of good meat.” Who knew that there was a difference between fall Parmigiano and spring Parmigiano?
Ruth Reichl’s characters take readers through kitchens and food history
“Delicious” is full of interesting characters, each with a full-blown story that unfolds within the larger story of the magazine. We meet people such as Jake, the handsome director of the magazine who had some kind of intimate relationship with Maggie, who is now his angry friend and one of the test kitchen cooks. Thursday Brown is a terrific chef at The Pig, a pub that everyone at the magazine frequents so we can catch glimpses of her great food.
We also meet Sammy, who writes for the magazine and travels great distances and becomes close friends with Billie, with whom she shares her dark secret. The Complainer is one of my favorite characters and when Billie takes a Saturday job at Fontanari’s Cheese Shop, a distant flirtation begins around his choice of cheeses. Benny, who owns the butcher shop, teaches Billie “where the T-bone ends and the porterhouse begins.”
The novel continues to twist and turn through the streets of New York and we are folded into the hearts and minds of Reichl’s characters like the eggs of a good soufflé (and James Beard writes, “Don’t be afraid of a soufflé”).
There are secrets lives, secret rooms and secret letters exchanged during the early 1940s between Beard and a young woman trying to comfort herself after her father goes to war and disappears. There is loss, family history and tradition. There is even a discussion of how important food was for the war effort during WWII: “It took a ton of food to feed a soldier for a year.”
When Reichl worked at Gourmet, she gave us a worldly spread of the life of food and when the magazine abruptly folded, her agent reminded her, “You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Now’s the time.”
And “Delicious” is a swift ride. Billie Breslin comes into the novel with heartache. She grows, changes, makes peace with her past and finally finds happiness and love. Reichl’s philosophy bursts forth from her book: “The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things … the pleasure of a perfectly ripe peach, the juice running down your arm … DELICIOUS.”
Main photo: “Delicious” and author Ruth Reichl. Credit: Fiona Aboud