Now in her mid-60s, Ruth Reichl has been a terrific food writer — maybe the best in the country — for more than four decades: first at New West magazine, then at the Los Angeles Times, then at the New York Times, then as editor in chief of Gourmet, where she stayed until its untimely death in 2009. Now, with “Delicious!,” she turns her hand to fiction, demonstrating, alas, that on the whole she is, as a novelist, a very good food writer.
Over the years I have had occasion to write highly positive reviews of Reichl’s memoirs, which run to three volumes, the best of which is “Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table” (1998), the story of her apprenticeship as a cook and then a writer on the West Coast. It was followed by “Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table” (2001) and “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise” (2005), both of which are first-rate but lack the appealing youthful innocence of the first. Still, taken as a whole, they add up to one of the most interesting American autobiographies of the postwar period, all the more so because of their unusual subject matter and Reichl’s willingness to mock the pretensions of haute cuisine and its most snobbish practitioners.
Considering her adventuresome spirit, it probably should come as no surprise that Reichl eventually turned to fiction, and it doesn’t seem to have come as much of a surprise to her, either. Included in the publicity material for “Delicious!” was an interview with her conducted by Ann Patchett, in which Reichl says, among many other things, “I set off on this journey knowing that many first novels are autobiographical; I bent over backwards to make sure this one wasn’t.” To the extent that its protagonist, a young woman named Billie Breslin, is “nothing like me,” that no doubt is true, but it’s difficult to believe that the food magazine called Delicious! where Billie finds herself working isn’t Gourmet in rather thin disguise, right down to the sudden decision to shut it down with which the first section of the novel ends.
Billie is still wet behind the ears when she leaves her family in California and goes to New York. She discovered as a young girl that she had “an extraordinary palate,” enabling her to identify all the ingredients in any dish, no matter how exotic. She is also an exceptionally gifted cook, but for reasons that are not supplied until well into the novel, she has a phobia about cooking, one so strong that she breaks into a sweat when the possibility of cooking arises and feels on the verge of fainting. That’s what happens when the editor of Delicious!, Jake Newberry, insists that she cook for him as part of her application to be his executive assistant. She manages to do so, and she gets the job, but the fear remains with her: “I don’t cook,” she says when asked, and that is that.
The offices of Delicious! are in “an intact Federal mansion . . . in the heart of Manhattan,” a building of architectural interest and, as one of the many twists in Reichl’s plot reveals, of historical importance as well. When Billie arrives there, it is populated largely by cliches: Jake, the editor, “a smooth, handsome man to whom everything has always come too easily”; Maggie, the hard-hearted “executive food editor,” who is “always mean to Jake’s assistants”; Diana, the friendly on-staff cook who becomes Billie’s mentor and protector; Sammy, the 60-something travel writer, gay and worldly-wise but soft and kindly at the center; “Young Arthur” Pickwick of the family that owns the chain of which the magazine is a part, a family suspiciously similar to the Newhouses of Conde Nast.
Et cetera. To me the big surprise about “Delicious!” is that there’s so little originality to it. The characters are mostly stereotypes, and the plot is far more contrived and sentimental than one would expect from a writer as outspoken and independent as Reichl. Once the magazine has been folded, Billie is allowed to stay on in the empty mansion answering queries from readers about the “Delicious! Guarantee” — “Your money back if the recipe doesn’t work” — which is as old as the magazine itself, as Jake had told her early on:
“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.”
Now the magazine is dead, but the policy lives on, applicable to back issues, as Jake tells Billie: “Young Arthur wants to keep someone on to honor the Guarantee. He thinks cutting it off so suddenly would be bad for the company’s image and would somehow hurt the other magazines.” So while the rest of the Delicious! staff goes off in search of work, Billie plugs away, much of the time dealing with complaints from a Mrs. Cloverly, a pest who apparently is meant to provide comic relief but doesn’t serve up much of it.
Alone in the mansion, Billie discovers a secret room in which a vast amount of the magazine’s correspondence with readers has been stored, and chances upon a long exchange of letters between a girl from Ohio named Lulu Swan and the young James Beard, whom Reichl has planted on the magazine’s staff in the early years of World War II. The real James Beard was known as an uncommonly decent sort, and so is the fictional one, responding patiently to Lulu’s inquiries and encouraging her interest in cooking. Eventually Billie becomes so fascinated by Lulu that she sets off in the hopes of finding her, even though she knows that the chances of Lulu’s remaining alive are slender at best.
The search for Lulu is one of the novel’s several sentimental story lines, two others being Billie’s attachment to Sal Fontanari and his wife, who run an Italian cheese shop in Little Italy and have hearts bigger than all of Bologna, and the mystery of Billie’s beloved older sister, a beauty who “had star power even when we were children, and by the time I was a teenager, every guy we ever met was so busy looking at her slanting violet eyes and curly blond hair they barely noticed me.” But of course noticing Billie is the whole point of “Delicious!,” though how that comes to pass is for you to learn with no further help from me.
“Delicious!” is amiable enough and its heart, like the hearts of Sammy the travel writer and the Fontanaris, is certainly in the right place, but it is a surprisingly amateurish performance for a writer as skilled and versatile as Reichl. Whether writing it taught her that fiction is a lot harder than many people believe has not been disclosed, but the evidence she herein presents proves the point.
By Ruth Reichl
Random House. 380 pp. $27