Ruth Reichl is well known for her memoirs, including my favorite, Garlic & Sapphires, about her stint as the New York Times restaurant critic. She is also well known for her stewardship at Gourmet magazine before its demise, and her occasional appearances on TV shows like Top Chef. This is her first novel, and it’s a really fun read.
Billie Breslin quits college in her senior year to apply for a job as assistant to the editor at a famous food magazine, Delicious. At her interview she is asked to cook, which freaks her out a bit but she rolls up her sleeves and makes gingerbread. Billie concocted the recipe when she was ten years old after her mother died, taking the recipe with her. The gingerbread cinches her the job, and she moves from California to New York City.
On her first day she is sent out with Sal on an errand. Sal owns Fontinari’s, a famous Manhattan cheese shop and deli, and he gives her a foodie tour of the city. Turns out Billie has a gift, a palate that can easily pick out even the most unusual flavors. Sal keeps her out so long she fears she will be fired her first day, but she can’t bring herself to leave him and his fascinating tour.
Billie keeps her job, at least for a while, making friends with the staff along the way including Sammy, the tweed wearing, multi-syllabic vocabulary spouting travel writer. She writes letters home to her older sister Genie, whom she idolizes. Billie has always felt second rate compared to her beautiful, talented, smart sister and fails to recognize her own gifts.
When Delicious is suddenly shut down, à la Gourmet magazine, all her new friends find themselves out of work, but Billie is asked to stay on to handle the “Delicious Guarantee”, basically a customer service nightmare of a job. But she has bills to pay so she says yes, rattling around in the big empty mansion that once housed the magazine.
Sammy shows her the previously verboten library, which had been locked for years. They find a secret room hidden behind a bookcase, which hides shelves of handwritten letters dating back to World War II. She is entranced with Lulu, a 12 year old girl who has a correspondence with famed chef James Beard, a one time employee of the magazine.
Tracking down Lulu’s letters becomes Billie’s preoccupation, and the meticulous research that Reichl did shines here, especially in light of the treatment of the Italian Americans (and Italians) during the war. This aspect of the book reminded me of Killer Smile by Lisa Scottoline, which also touched on this topic in a very personal way.
Billie also has a love interest, eventually – a regular customer at Fontinari’s, where Billie works on weekends. Dubbed “Mr. Complainer,” the mystery man keeps popping up throughout, adding another layer of interest.
I have carefully resisted all the food metaphors that would be so easy to employ here, but I have to say that this is a very sweet book, and an entertaining, fast read – a wonderful way to kick off summer reading.
5/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
DELICIOUS! by Ruth Reichl. Random House (May 6, 2014). ISBN 978-1400069620. 400p.