I bought Delicious!, the debut work of fiction by restaurant critic, food writer (food memoirist might be a better moniker), and former editor of Gourmet Magazine, Ruth Reichl as a gift for my mother, who is a solid cook and ardent reader of Reichl's work and other great food writers, and my aunt, a spectacular, thoughtful cook who does not read much fiction. I thought I might borrow it (and it would be the one adult book I read this year) and the three of us could discuss it over a bottle of wine and olives. When I was about 100 pages into the book, I realized that, with a main character who is in her early 20s, Delicious! is also a book that could appeal to teens, especially since there are so many teens and kids obsessed with cooking these days. In Reichl's book, food brings comfort and delights are taken in everyday things, especially the company of others. Food brings people together and keeps them coming together and these are the main themes of the novel. Reading Kate Christensen writes in her review of Delicious! for the New York Times decided me on the appropriateness of Reichel's book for teens. Christensen writes, "The characters in Delicious! seem to know how to find pleasure in the face of struggles, darkness and loss. Partly because of this theme, the novel offers many of the satisfactions of a children's book. Billie, the plucky heroine, has a perfect palate - arguably Reichl's fairy-tale equivalent of being able to detect a pea under a stack of mattresses." This is apt, as Billie is part Cinderella, part Nancy Drew and part culinary wizard who finds herself a diverse, welcoming new family of quirky friends in NYC even though she seems to have turned her back on her loving nuclear family in California. Along with Billie's story in present day NYC, filled with mysteries of its own, Reichl layers in a story set in the past that is even thicker with mystery. The pages of Delicious! are filled with richly descriptive writing, wonderfully unique characters and, of course food. In terms of appropriateness, there is one tame bedroom scene with a love interest who has a freezer drawer built into his bed frame so that he can eat ice cream in the middle of the night, and almost no swear words. Delicious! itself is a sweet treat with just enough chewy bits to make it a very satisfying read.
Delicious! begins with a flashback. Nine-year-old Billie and her big sister Genie are in their kitchen in Santa Barbara with their Aunt Melba trying to duplicate their (dead) mother's gingerbread cake recipe as a birthday surprise for their father. Billie has the uncanny ability to detect ingredients and spices by taste alone and, as they bake cake after failed cake, she comes to know exactly what the recipe is. This cake (the recipe of which is shared at the end of the book) leads the young sisters, with the help of Aunt Melba, into a business called Cake Sisters that they finally shutter when Billie joins her gorgeous, accomplished big sister for college at Berkeley. The real story of Delicious! starts with the rumpled, frumpy Billie quitting college her senior year to work as the executive assistant to culinary legend Jake Newberry, editor of the food magazine, Delicious!.
Billie gets the job and a bushel of new friends as well as a part-time job at the (tightly, exclusively, until Billie) family run Italian market, Fontanari's. She also gets a friend in Thursday, the chef and owner of The Pig (possibly as in, The Spotted Pig, the famous NYC chef and cookbook author April Bloomfield?) Then there's Sammy, the older, gay travel writer at the magazine with an arcane vocabulary that becomes more so when he drinks. Sammy uses the word "peregrinated" more than once and I have to confess that I needed to look it up. When Delicious! is shut down a year into her career there, it is Sammy who gives Billie a new purpose and make-over while her friends at Fontanari's try to set her up with a good man. The project that Billie and Sammy find themselves embroiled in (and what elevates the book to the next level) is a secret stash of letters they discover in a secret room in the long locked library of the almost 200 year old Timbers Mansion, the headquarters for Delicious!. These letters are scattered throughout the hundreds of files in the room, but one of the Delicious! librarians from decades past has written clues in peacock blue ink on the backs select cards in the card catalog that keep Billie hunting. The letters are from Lulu Swan, who is twelve years old when, in 1942, she first writes to Mr. James Beard. Beard (who did write for Gourmet) is a writer for the magazine but was working as a cryptographer, then serving with the United Seamen's Service setting up canteens during WWII, which Beard actually did. Lulu has taken over the role of homemaker while her mother is working in an airplane factory and her father is flying them in the war. Lulu is seeking better recipes using non-rationed food than what she has encountered. A friendship grows over the course of the wonderful letters and, while we don't get the benefit of seeing Beard's letters to Lulu, we do hear about the recipes he offers up using ingredients like milkweed, the leaves of the pumpkin plant and mangel-wurzels.
A correspondence begins and Lulu's life unfolds over the next six years as she writes to Beard. When the fate of the letters in the secret room is threatened, Sammy and Billie devise a plan that plays out over the last third of the novel, bringing the two story lines together for a very happy ending. There is plenty of enjoyable descriptive writing about food, cooking and eating in Delicious! and the mystery, even if it is not a weighty one, will have you racing to the end of the novel.
Ruth Reichl's other books: