It couldn’t have been easy for editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl when Gourmet, the magazine she had run since 1999, was abruptly shuttered by parent company Conde Nast in 2009. The elegant monthly magazine had been in business since 1941, and Reichl had worked tirelessly for ten years to make it relevant in a rapidly changing gastronomic climate. As talented an editor and writer as Reichl was, however, she couldn’t save Gourmet from the publishing world’s pessimistic number-crunchers. Conde Nast axed the once-glamorous Gourmet in favor of its other food magazine, the bright, ad-generating, family-friendly Bon Appetit.
With all her insider knowledge of New York’s wildly competitive, ambition-driven, gossip-riddled restaurant and food world, one would expect to see Reichl tapping out her own tell-all of that heady time. After all, she has already written three best-selling, well-received and unflinchingly truthful memoirs, starting with Tender at the Bone, which described her childhood with a mentally disturbed, food-hording mother, followed by her freewheeling life as a hippie chef turned restaurant critic in 1970s California. Comfort Me with Apples had her touring Europe with Saveur editor Colman Andrews, getting a sentimental and culinary education at his side. Garlic and Sapphires detailed her wig-wearing, persona-creating experiments as the all-powerful restaurant reviewer at the New York Times. Clearly, Reichl can write, and write well, on a variety of topics.
But while good novelists usually have the chops to be good memoirists, the reverse is not often true. Despite being based around a Gourmet magazine stand-in named Delicious!, Reichl’s first foray into fiction, Delicious!, is less roman à clef than Nancy Drew-ishly-plotted novel about an ugly duckling coming into her own in the big city. Fluffy, sweet, and wholly unbelievable, Delicious! isn’t being marketed as a young-adult book, but it might as well be, except that it’s too sugary for a genre now dominated by dark, dystopian fantasies and sexed-up vampires. There’s no devil wearing Prada here. Instead, everyone’s gorgeous, everyone’s charming, and (most unbelievable of all) everyone’s friendly, eager to get instantly helpfully chummy with Reichl’s frumpy little nobody of a heroine, Billie Breslin.
Because isn’t that exactly what life is like in the New York media world? Billie shows up, a badly dressed college dropout with dorky glasses and baggy khakis, who suffers panic attacks when asked to cook, and suddenly the editor of the city’s top food magazine wants her as his assistant. On her very first day, the glad-handing owner of the best Italian deli in the city hires her on the spot for a second job that turns into a second family. Within days, she’s hanging out with her new magazine pals, drinking endless glasses of wine and scarfing up plates of duck hearts at their cool chef friends’ new restaurants. Oh, and at the two-month point, that silver-fox editor takes her out for expensive sushi and assigns her a long feature story about the deli where she’s working. Without asking permission from her deli-owner boss, she writes it, brilliantly, in a single all-nighter. And why worry about negligible publishing salaries when dad’s paying the rent on that sweet walk-up on hipster-ridden Rivington Street? Even the character’s name manages to evoke both The Breslin, a hot restaurant hangout helmed by Brit-chef April Bloomfield (fictionalized here as Thursday Brown, owner of The Pig, a hardly-disguised version of The Spotted Pig, another of Bloomfield’s popular restaurants) and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning, longtime NYC journalist Jimmy Breslin.
Hired to answer the phone and fetch coffee, suddenly Billie’s swimming in feature assignments involving cute farmers and voluble fishermen and fun travel all around the country, because that’s just how brand-new careers go in the kooky New York magazine world. See, Billie has that one-in-a-million skill, the pitch-perfect palate. She can pick out a whisper of curry leaf in a spinach-saffron-Parmesan gnocchi that Thursday pops into her mouth the minute she walks into The Pig’s crowded kitchen. Oh, how she regrets that in a “chocolate that tastes like rain,” she can pick out only “hyssop and maybe myrtle, and a bit of cassia” before “the flavors get away from” her.
Everyone treats Billie’s palate like it’s Barry Zito’s throwing arm in its prime, but, in fact, it’s not exactly a novel talent. Anyone who tastes for a living learns to cultivate sense memories and build a mental database of flavors and scents, so that faced with a dish you can say this is cardamom, this is coriander, this is fenugreek, and that is turmeric. Hardly rocket science. For any food writer or recipe developer or (presumably) chef, identifying, remembering, and recalling flavors is a basic part of the necessary skill set.
So, that’s the first 80 pages or so, until, as in life, Delicious! is abruptly shuttered, leaving Billie adrift but, weirdly, still employed as a lone phone voice kept on to honor the “Delicious! Guarantee,” a longtime marketing gimmick that promised readers satisfaction with all the magazine’s recipes or the cost of their ingredients back. The remaining two-thirds of the book becomes Scooby Doo with cell phones, as intrepid girl reporter Billie discovers, in a secret room in the magazine’s long-locked library, a hidden! cache! of! nifty! letters! written by a perkily precocious girl named Lulu to none other but James Beard, who, as a gay soldier during World War II, had nothing better to do than share wartime-rationing cooking tips and canned life lessons with a chatty teenage pen pal from Akron, Ohio. One of the magazine’s last librarians, obviously with too much time on his hands, has created an elaborate, yet essentially pointless, treasure hunt for the letters through the library’s idiosyncratic card file, which Billie follows with breathless, Velma-worthy excitement.
If only, as readers, we could care about annoyingly chipper little Lulu, persecuted by mean teachers for her milkweed-foraging habits and fondness for pasta (enemy food, in that Axis-fearing era). Or about little Billie, who turns out to have a size-six killer bod AND fabulous fashion sense AND a trust fund on tap from The Cake Sisters, the wildly successful baking business she and her sister started as pre-teens and ran until college, when her absolutely, positively flawless older sister was run down by a speeding Jaguar as she carried the toppers for a $30,000 wedding-cupcake extravaganza across the street. (This is the perfectly perfect dead sister in whose shadow Billie has been willingly standing throughout the whole book, until Big Sis is revealed to have been snorting all her cake-baking profits up her nose, a habit proven after her death thanks to the meticulous written records kept by her coke dealer about all his clients. Because, of course, drug dealers: just like accountants that way.)
Occasionally, there are moments when Reichl’s extensive knowledge of the actual New York food world peeks through. But the howlers outnumber the real world moments by the dozens. Like Billie’s devoted boyfriend, Mitch, a well-regarded architectural historian and professor who is surely a little old to be dating a woman of barely legal drinking age. Mitch comes straight from the sensitive urban-hunk division of rom-com casting as he reaches beneath his platform bed, promising “and now for the major attraction.” Handcuffs? Sex toys? Nope–just the ultimate foodie fantasy: an under-the-bed freezer drawer stocked with post-coital coffee ice cream, enough to make him worth at least a Ben & Jerry’s-fueled booty call or two.
In interviews shortly after Gourmet closed, Reichl implied that another memoir, this time about her life at the magazine, was on its way. If you want the full Reichl-style meal, better wait for that one. Delicious! is all frosting and no filling.
Ruth Reichl is discussing Delicious! A Novel at the following Bay Area venues this week: