It’s hard to say whether Ruth Reichl is best known for her scrumptiously honest memoirs (Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires) or her long stints as restaurant reviewer for the New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine.
But one thing’s for sure: Reichl’s first novel—which comes after a career focused on nonfiction—is well worth the wait. Delicious! tells the story of Billie Breslin, a young woman who moves to New York to pursue a career in food writing and escape her sad life in California. She lands a gig assisting the famous editor of Delicious!, a venerable food magazine on the brink of closing in the midst of the recession. Billie dives into the world of Manhattan cuisine, becoming fast friends with the magazine’s flamboyant travel writer, Sammy, who persuades her to lose the thick glasses and frumpy clothes she’s hidden behind for years.
Reichl weaves real-life chef James Beard into the story of a young assistant at a failing food magazine.
When Billie discovers a treasure trove of World War II correspondence between James Beard and a young girl named Lulu, she knows she has found something special. But the rest of the letters have been elaborately hidden by a long-forgotten Delicious! staff librarian, and when the magazine is abruptly shuttered, Billie and Sammy race to crack the code to find them before the Delicious! building is sold.
One doesn’t reach the career heights Reichl has without taking chances, but the idea of writing a novel daunted her for many years.
“I’m truly a slave to fiction,” Reichl says in an early spring interview from her home in snowy upstate New York. “I can’t imagine being alive and not having books to read. It’s always been my greatest joy—diving into someone else’s world. But I was afraid that I couldn’t do it. I always said if I didn’t have a day job, I could do it. Then all of a sudden, I didn’t have a day job.”
Reichl is referring, of course, to the closure of Gourmet in 2009 due to declining ad revenue, after she’d been at the helm for 10 years. It was, she said, the best job she’s ever had, one that she plans to write about in a future memoir.
“It was sort of everything that I could have imagined,” she says. “I was surrounded by people who cared passionately about the subject. It was a time in American life where other people were starting to care about food as much as I did. We just said, let’s push the envelope as much as we can.”
With the magazine closed, Reichl branched out to other projects. She is a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” and has hosted food programming on PBS.
She also realized that the time had come to make good on her pledge to write fiction.
“To me, nonfiction is kind of getting in the shower and deciding how you’re going to go that day,” Reichl says. “After 40-something years, it’s natural to me. Fiction is way harder. It involves a lot of waiting.”
Reichl found a cookbook from the 1940s filled with rationing recipes (“truly awful”) and directions for victory gardens. World War II must have been in her subconscious, because shortly afterward, she got her inspiration.
“It was really a gift,” she recalls. “I walked into a library, and I had a fully formed image of finding letters from a little girl to James Beard during World War II. I sat down and wrote them all. Lulu was a gift who came to me. The rest of the book formed around her.”
"When I thought about what this book was, it was very much about how food connects us across time and space. . . . In some ways, this book is a thank you to James Beard for all he did for Marion Cunningham.”
Reichl actually knew Beard, the cook and author who is widely credited with growing America’s love of cuisine. She was also a close friend of Marion Cunningham, the food writer who served as Beard’s longtime assistant.
“When I thought about what this book was, it was very much about how food connects us across time and space,” Reichl says. “He just seemed like the obvious person. He was extremely generous to his readers, and he is someone I think who might very well have become entranced with a Lulu. In some ways, this book is a thank you to James Beard for all he did for Marion Cunningham.”
It could be argued that the book is also a love letter to New York City. One of the best parts of Delicious! is its very specific, lovingly rendered depiction of Manhattan, from Billie’s office in a gorgeous Federal-style mansion to a hip boutique under the High Line to a fantastic cheese shop tucked into a city block. Readers can practically hear the taxi horns.
“I am a New Yorker to my core,” Reichl declares. “I grew up in Greenwich Village. One of the great joys of my life is wandering New York City—just getting on the subway and getting off somewhere and wandering.”
Since the novel is about a food writer at a famous New York magazine that is suddenly shut down, Reichl understands if readers assume the story is autobiographical. But it most emphatically is not, she says. Billie’s path may mirror Reichl’s in some ways, but that is where the similarity ends, Reichl insists.
“My biggest problem was in focusing so hard on making Billie not like me, I wasn’t letting her be herself,” Reichl says. “I had to get out of my own way. I had to get used to sitting quietly and just letting Billie be herself.”
Billie starts her time in New York as a mousy assistant, uncertain and still smarting from a tragedy she is unwilling to come to grips with. But she comes into her own as the book unfolds, taking on writing assignments, making friends, exploring the city and even finding romance. She is a wholly likable character, and the supporting players at the magazine and in Billie’s neighborhood are a hoot. The letters from Lulu are sweet and evocative (although Billie and Sammy’s search for them drags on a bit too long), and the mouthwatering food descriptions throughout the book are vintage Reichl (she even makes roasted pig’s ears sound appetizing).
Delicious! is like a family-style meal around a big table: fun, loud, at times messy and, ultimately, completely satisfying.