Unemployed big-time food writer pens novel

Wednesday , June 25, 2014 - 12:00 AM


Ruth Reichl has held some of the top food writing posts in the country, including restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times. In 1999, she became editor of Gourmet, the country’s premier foodie magazine since 1941.

That gig ended abruptly 10 years later, when the 69-year-old magazine was shut down, a result of the tanked economy. When she found herself suddenly without a job, she decided to tread new writing territory — a novel. But, it still has a culinary ring to it, as the title is “Delicious!” (Random House, $27).

If you're looking for a summer beach book, this might be the ticket. But only if you're not on a diet.

Reichl had already detailed her own food writing adventures in a series of memoirs, “Tender At The Bone,” “Comfort Me With Apples," and “Garlic And Sapphires.” Some of those tales proved that truth really can be stranger than fiction. In fact, her fiction is almost tame by comparison.

Her novel begins as young Billie Breslin snags a job as assistant to the editor of the country's top food magazine, Delicious! Through Billie’s eyes, we learn the inner workings of a food magazine -- test kitchens, tastings, recipes and reader requests.

Billie’s life takes a turn when Delicious! is suddenly shut down. (Hmmm, wonder how the author came up with that plot twist?) The staff is ordered to pack up their personal belongings and vacate the premises. All except for Billie, who is retained to maintain the reader hotline. The historic mansion that housed the bustling Delicious! offices is like a ghost town, amid the stench of food rotting away in the test kitchen. It happens that the magazine owner's bean counters insisted that no "company property" could be taken off the premises, but didn't consider that recipe ingredients are perishable.

While searching for old recipes requested by readers, Billie discovers a hidden room where the magazine's secrets are tucked away. Mysterious clues lead her to a cache World War II-era fan letters from a young teenager to chef James Beard. During the war, Beard served in the United Seamen's Service, setting up canteens for servicemen around the world. But because he had written articles for Delicious!, the young Lulu wrote to him for advice on improvising with wartime food rationing. Thanks to advice from Beard, she comes up with tasty meals from pumpkin leaves, foraged mushrooms, and milkweed floss.

Billie recognizes  the historical value of the letters — today, Beard is considered the Dean of American Food and the James Beard Foundation was named in his honor. Billie wants to search for Lulu, who might possibly still be alive after all these years.

There are many places where fact and fiction intersect. Obviously, there is no Delicious! magazine, but Beard did write articles for Gourmet and other food magazines.

In her author's note, Reichl wrote that the novel's account of Beard's World War II service is accurate, and that Beard was "extremely generous to many, many correspondents." So perhaps if 12-year-old Lulu Swan had actually existed and wrote him letters, he might have actually responded.

But there’s more to Reichl’s story. Billie has her own secrets lurking in her family background that she's trying to avoid. And there's Mr. Complainer, who is interested in good food, and maybe in Billie too.

The backstory resonated with me, as a food editor whose publication was also abruptly shut down after the economy tanked. I had also been at the helm for 10 years, and I know how it  feels to walk away from your beloved test kitchen as it is being disassembled by strangers. (Luckily, though, there was no rotting food. I always made a point to leave very few perishables in the fridge.)

I've read several interviews where Reich talks about the shock and feeling of failure when the magazine closed, and how she didn't know what to do with herself. After years of going out to restaurants, she no longer had an expense account, so she retreated to her home kitchen and cooked. Ever the one to turn lemons into lemonade, Reichl will be publishing a cookbook based on her year of cooking and healing.

I, too, turned to my kitchen after being laid off, and wrote a cookbook on soups, my favorite comfort food. I've no doubt, though, that Reichl's cookbook will be much bigger.

Reichl definitely cooked up a recipe for fiction, with intriguing tidbits of mystery and nostalgia, lavishly sprinkled with romance and a pinch of humor. A few ingredients are a little off — Billie's perfect sister whom she holds on a pedestal feels like a cliché. But overall, the tale is satisfying and a little bittersweet.

What really sets the book apart is Reichl’s abiity to describe food — the textures, the aromas, the colors, the flavors. She conveys the feeling that you are tasting right along with her, and that's what made her so successful as a food writer.

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