Ruth Reichl, the onetime editor of "Gourmet" magazine and fabled food writer, is the author of “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me with Apples,” two charming and delightful memoirs. “Delicious!,” her first novel, is filled with much of the same easy charm.
Billie Breslin has arrived in New York from Santa Barbara, California, to take up a job as the assistant to the editor of “Delicious!,” an iconic food magazine not unlike “Gourmet.” Billie is a natural with food. Possessed since childhood of an unerring palette, she is able not only to identify the ingredients in a dish but also to recreate them in the kitchen.
Billie's skills give Reichl ample opportunity to write about food, which is, after all, what she does best:
The waitress set a small glass bowl in front of each of us. Lacy little green fronds waved up through clear liquid; it reminded me of a forest stream in early spring, just after the ice has melted. I picked up a frond, and as I put it in my mouth, I experienced a moment of cool, pure freshness.
Welcomed by the magazine’s colorful staff, Billie quickly finds her way around the city’s food scene, even taking a weekend job at Fontanari’s, a celebrated Italian delicatessen in lower Manhattan.
When “Delicious!” is perfunctorily shut down -- much as "Gourmet" was -- Billie is the only staffer to remain in the magazine’s offices, which are located in a landmark Federal mansion. Exploring the emptied mansion, Billie and a former co-worker discover a cache of letters written to culinary giant James Beard by 12-year-old Lulu Swan. The Akron, Ohio girl was fascinated by food, despite the limitations of World War II rationing. The letters, which are peppered throughout the book, will inspire Billie to try to track down their author.
When Lulu reports in a letter that her father is presumed dead, Billie is comforted. “That’s exactly how I felt . . .,” I told Sammy. “Like nothing good was ever going to happen to me again.” Billie, as it turns out, has fled California to come to terms with a terrible loss.
“Delicious!” combines all the ingredients of an entertaining read: a pinch of mystery, a dash of romance, a dab of history, a splash of food lore, and a sprinkle of roman a clef magazine lore into a savory stew of a book. Billie is a wonderful narrator who learns to see the world for what it is:
Seeing his pictures for the first time, I’d been awed by his ability to find beauty buried in the grotesque. But, more than that, Richard had made me understand that sight is not a gift but an act of will.
“Delicious!” is indeed a delicious gift to fans of Ruth Reichl.
"Delicious!" is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.