Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Billie Breslin has dropped out of college to take a job at the eminent cooking magazine Delicious! Possessed of a remarkable palate--she can identify ingredients in a dish that most people have never heard of--but afraid to cook, she also gets a weekend job at an Italian deli. At both jobs, she builds friendships among her colleagues. Then the publisher closes Delicious! but keeps Billie on to handle the Delicious! Guarantee--if someone tries a recipe from the magazine and it fails, the publisher will pay for the ingredients. With the magazine's former travel reporter Sammy, Billie begins exploring the library in the mansion where the magazine offices were located; the library had previously been off-limits to employees. The two discover a hidden room where old letters to the magazine are filed and become obsessed with the correspondence between a young girl in Ohio named Lulu and the legendary James Beard. Although they only have Lulu's side of the correspondence, the letters are charming. When Billie finally quits her job, she decides she needs to track down Lulu and find out what happened. As all of this is going on, Billie undergoes a makeover from frump to edgy hipster, falls in love with a customer at the deli, and begins to resolve her feelings about a tragedy in her personal life.

And that description leaves out myriad characters, plot lines, and topics, which is one of the problems with the novel. Reichl touches on the problems of print magazines in the electronic world, the challenges of growing up with a more beautiful and accomplished sister, discrimination against gays in the 1950s, World War II, the Underground Railroad, the difficulties of selling historic buildings, and more. There are so many topics/issues thrown into the story that none of them are developed in much depth.

Reichl was the editor of the now defunct Gourmet and the restaurant reviewer for The New York Times,  so she certainly knows the world of culinary magazines and food and she writes beautifully about food and cooking. The letters included in the text--Billie's letters to her sister Genie and Lulu's missives to James Beard--are also delightful. Reichl seems to excel with a specific voice speaking via the informal style of the letters. The straight text is sometimes rather stiff--it sounds to me like a nonfiction writer's early attempts to try fiction (which I guess it is); if Reichl continues with fiction, I expect her writing will become more natural/authentic.

Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy Delicious! It could be more focused and more consistently well written, but it's still a good read.

Favorite passages:
They weren't buying food: They were finding their way home.

. . . sight is not a gift but an act of will.

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