Ruth Reichl’s debut novel takes us on a delightful foodie journey with Billie, a young woman with an unmatched palate, a drool-worthy new job and a heart that needs mending.
I fell head over heels in love with Ruth Reichl’s 2005 memoir Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. Her careful, intentional word choices tease the senses and bring us into the moments she has experienced in her life—it’s a gift that’s unmatched by so many other authors I’ve read (even on Twitter).
Cool. Gray. Damp. Winter’s on its way. A soup morning. Avgolemono: sunny bowl of warm comfort. Rich chicken stock, bright lemon, rice. egg.
— ruthreichl (@ruthreichl) November 1, 2015
Reichl’s a gourmand and an expert chef, and yet she manages to convey an unpretentious and down-to-earth spirit that resonates so clearly with her readers. So, as you can imagine, I was super excited to pick up and read her first foray into novel-dom.
Delicious! A Novel
Delicious! A Novel kicks off with the sort of zest I’ve come to expect from Reichl: “You should have used fresh ginger!” It’s our first glimpse of a young Billie Breslin, an eager foodie-savant of a child. Billie was born with an amazing ability to uncover each, individual flavor and spice with only a taste of a dish. It’s both unbelievable and genuine.
After a brief glimpse of Billie’s childhood, Reichl throws us into present day where Billie has just left her family in California to interview for a position at Delicious!, a New York magazine. She’s young, inexperienced and full of nerves, but happens to be a closeted terrific cook with an extraordinary palate like no other.
During the interview, editor of Delicious!, Jake Newberry, makes a unique request of his future executive assistant: Billie must cook for him as part of the application. It’s enough to make her feel faint, breaking out in a sweat and insisting, “I don’t cook,” on multiple occasions.
At this point we know something dramatic must have happened in her life to cause her to be so emphatic about not cooking, but we’re left to simply wondering about it—hopeful that we’ll get more. Billie manages to complete the task, by way of a drool-worthy gingerbread cake, and lands the job.
The magazine’s staff is comprised of endearing, albeit clichéd, characters, housed in the offices of a converted historic Federal mansion in the heart of Manhattan. The building itself begins to develop a character of its own once the magazine folds and Billie remains as the sole employee, left to answer queries from readers about the “Delicious! Guarantee.” As Jake explains to Billie:
When the first Arthur Pickwick started the magazine, he wanted to make a splash. It was a hundred years ago, and back then everybody was trying to make recipes more efficient. But nobody’d ever come up with the idea of guaranteeing them. The New York Times called it one of the most brilliant public-relations ploys of all time. Everybody assumed Young Arthur would put an end to it when he took over, but he decided not to mess with success.
This is where Delicious! takes a notable turn. Billie is left alone in the mansion to honor the Guarantee, so as not to tarnish the company’s image which could hurt the other magazines. She spends the majority of her time fielding oddball Guarantee submissions from Mrs. Cloverly, a seemingly lonely old woman who makes it her job to ruin every Delicious! recipe she gets her hands on. It brings light humor to the storyline, but more importantly leads us to a delightful discovery: a secret room filled with the magazine’s readers’ old correspondence letters, including many between a young James Beard and a girl named Lulu Swan.
Billie obsesses over the letters—which center largely on food—Lulu’s questions about navigating the kitchen, and Beard’s gentle encouragement. She eventually embarks on an adventure to find Lulu, hopeful that she’s still alive, and instead ends up finding peace with a number of personal struggles.
I enjoyed Reichl’s first attempt at a novel, though it wasn’t as engaging for me as Oprah might have you believe. I think I’m just a sucker for her memoirs, and I hear there’s a new one in the works. Until then, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on her latest cook book (the first in 40 years!!!): My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life.
PS: The recipe for Billie’s gingerbread cake is included in the Delicious! A Novel, but you’ll have to wait until the end of the book to grab it!
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