‘Delicious!’: Ruth Reichl’s surprisingly half-baked novel
This first novel, set in the world of a foodie magazine and with touches of “The Devil Wears Prada,” and Dan Brown meets Nancy Drew, shows none of the intellect of the former Gourmet editor and memoirist.
The New York Times
Lunch with author of “Delicious! A Novel” includes signed copy of the book. Noon Thursday, May 15, Dahlia Lounge, 2001 Fourth Ave., Seattle, $70, by reservation; author discusses and signs book, 6:30 p.m. May 15, Book Larder, 4252 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; $27 by reservation includes signed copy of book (206-397-4271 or www.booklarder.com).
There’s only one recipe in “Delicious!” Ruth Reichl’s first novel, but it’s a keeper. You have to flip to the back to find it. It’s for a gingerbread cake enlivened by orange zest and fresh ginger and black pepper and cloves and cardamom. It’s for grown-up taste buds.
Reichl’s novel, however, is strictly kid stuff. It’s a gauzy ode to the liberating virtues of pleasure, glazed with warmth and uplift, so feebly written and idea free that it will make you wonder if the energy we’ve been putting into food these last few decades hasn’t made us each lose, on average, a dozen IQ points.
Reichl has no need to prove herself as a writer. As a restaurant critic for The Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times, she has written columns with brightness and bite. Her several memoirs, though they require a high tolerance for earnestness, have some magic to them in the form of sexiness and truth telling. Gourmet magazine, during the decade that she edited it, bloomed. It was under her watch that it commissioned and ran “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace’s essay, an instant classic of the form.
It’s hard to know where to begin with “Delicious!” (Random House, 380 pages, $27) though. The verbal chloroform arrives so quickly that you’re put in mind of Mike Tyson’s observation: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
Welcome to Earth mother adjectival Götterdämmerung. On just the first three pages, cakes are “Strong. Earthy. Fragrant” and “rich, moist, tender.” Scents spangle the air. Nutmeg is “delicate” yet “ferocious,” like the quiet-storm radio format. Ginger is “mysteriously tingly,” cinnamon “nose-prickling,” crushed cloves filled with “startling power.” Vanilla beans are “supple, plump, purple.”
It all gets more delicate, yet more ferocious. Soon we meet a chef who is “dancing with a molten river of chocolate” that she caresses “like a lover.” One of her sweets “tasted like rain, another of the desert.” Is that a melon? A woman takes a bite and is “stunned by the roar of cantaloupe juice inside my head.” The roar in my head came from a different source.
Everything about “Delicious!” is cozy, closed off from reality, calculated to land buttered side up. It’s about a young woman from California named Billie Breslin who gets a job as executive assistant to the editor of Delicious!, a venerable food magazine that sounds not unlike Gourmet.
Billie resembles Anne Hathaway’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” She’s a frump who merely needs tailored clothes and a decent haircut to turn her into a knockout. In Reichl’s hands, her makeover sounds like Olivia Newton-John’s in “Grease.” Billie gets “smoky bourbon” eyes and hair that’s “a riot of golds and bronzes winking and glittering in the light.” She becomes a pop tart.
Most of the other characters in Reichl’s novel put you in mind of “The Devil Wears Prada,” too. As she introduces them, you think: There’s Stanley Tucci. There’s Emily Blunt. Bill Nighy and Alec Baldwin, who were not in that film, should also text their agents.
Reichl’s descriptions of these people aren’t far from Nora Roberts’ in her romance novels. The magazine’s creative director has “olive skin, emerald eyes, and chiseled cheekbones.” Its editor is “truly great-looking; the photographs captured his all-American looks.” The descriptions of everything are like this. What does snow seen from inside a window look like? A paperweight.
Billie is a precocious foodie with the keenest taste buds of her generation. “I identified hyssop and maybe myrtle and a bit of cassia,” she declares about one mouthful, “but then it got away from me.” At one point a potential suitor refers to her as SuperCheeseGirl — the title of a movie I’d pay to see.
Billie comes with a back story (dead mother, dead sister, semi-estranged father) and a trust fund. When Delicious! is forced to shut down, she becomes its last employee, performing mop-up editorial duties alone in the magazine’s office mansion. She stumbles upon a secret chamber and finds letters written by a girl to James Beard during World War II.
Finding more of these letters is a chore, because one of the magazine’s former librarians has cunningly hidden them. So the hunt is on, in a Dan Brown meets Nancy Drew sort of way. Characters spout sentences like, “The plot thickens.”
Food-world observers will get small frissons from some of the names in “Delicious!” Billie shares her surname, Breslin, with a gastro pub in Manhattan run by the chef April Bloomfield. These characters hang out at a place called The Pig — almost certainly a reference to another of Bloomfield’s restaurants, the Spotted Pig. The girl who wrote the letters to Beard is named Lulu, perhaps to honor Lulu Peyraud, a Provençal food legend. Billie’s aunt is Melba, like the toast.
Yet there’s no complicated sense of the food world in “Delicious!” It’s set in circa 2010 but exists in walled-off sitcom space. The year could almost as easily be 1980, or even 1960.
By the novel’s midpoint, life lessons are being heaved in our direction, like stones to drowning people. “There are many kinds of crime,” a wise old woman says to Billie, who’s lost her urge to cook. “I’ve always thought the most unforgivable is to have a gift and turn your back on it.” I’d rank defenestration slightly higher on the unforgivability scale, but only because I’m weird about heights.
Billie’s interior monologues are just as painful. You start to imagine Little Orphan Annie walking up to a microphone and uttering them with a catch in her throat: “I thought how much confidence it took to walk through the world with your heart on your sleeve. Hope can’t hurt. And then I thought how lucky I was to be here, to be experiencing this. Things can change in a single minute.”
Food is so complicated a topic, especially elite food. It’s tangled up with class and race and politics and resentment. Little to none of this comes into play in “Delicious!” Reichl, talking down to her audience, never allows her intellect to surface. It’s a food novel that never even made me hungry. Except for that recipe at the end, which my teenage daughter, a good baker, made the other night.
It was terrific. I’m going to tear that page out.