For a decade, Ruth Reichl edited Gourmet magazine, an icon of food journalism for 70 years. Then in 2009, Gourmet ceased publication. Reichl, in the middle of a tour promoting the “Gourmet Today” cookbook, was blindsided.
Little wonder, then, that the heroine of her first novel, “Delicious!,” works at a beloved food magazine named Delicious! that gets shut down. Or that Billie Breslin has a keen palate, discerning curry leaf in a dish because of its “echo of cinnamon right behind the lemon.” As Reichl shifts from nonfiction to fiction, she wisely remains in a world she parses as expertly as a menu.
“Delicious!” is like one of those very detailed menus, where no lamb chop’s provenance goes unheralded, no basil’s nuance unnoted. What essentially is a romance mystery offers us tastes of the Underground Railroad, World War II, drug use, Greenwich Village architecture and Italian food. When Sal, an exuberant deli owner, ladles out servings of pasta con le vongole, the reference stands without explanation. (It’s spaghetti with clams.)
Either Reichl respects her readers’ worldliness, or is showing off her vast and varied knowledge just a teensy bit. Probably both. When an older woman tells Billie that time is no more than a trick of the mind — “some days, I’m convinced that my young self is still here, somewhere, just walking down a different street” — the leap to a pensive Reichl, working without her most visible and prestigious platform, isn’t difficult.
Billie Breslin arrives in New York fleeing an unspecified family tragedy that gives her panic attacks if she’s asked to cook. She lands a job as executive assistant and writer at the nation’s premier food magazine housed in a grand old mansion, although her first assignment requires her to exploit a friendship. Just when you think this tension will drive the narrative, the magazine shuts down. Huh.
Breslin is kept on to field readers’ questions about archived recipes, which gives us Mrs. Cloverly of Cleveland, whose free hand with substitutions to disastrous effect is hilarious and, you suspect, not unknown among food editors.
Looking for old recipes, Billie discovers a secret room in the mansion filled with old files. Among them are World War II-era letters from a young girl named Lulu to James Beard, a legend at Gourmet — er, Delicious! Here the book takes on shape and energy. Lulu’s letters, each found only by cracking a long-ago librarian’s clues, are a glimpse into history. (Of knitting scarves for soldiers, a poster urges: “Remember Pearl Harbor. Purl harder.”)
Lulu’s voice is precocious, yet never precious. She approaches Beard as a mentor and, although we never see his replies, it’s clear that their correspondence brings joy and comfort to both.
Word of the mansion’s sale, however, puts the letters in peril. Along with Reich’s narrative. In short order, we get a romance, a makeover, a gay friend, a trip to Cleveland and the search for Lulu. We discover Billie’s tragic tale, and then some. Without giving too much away, Reichl maintains a degree of suspense until the final pages.
It’s the “then some” throughout the novel that may irk a reader intent on a breezy read — or a salad. Yet real life is full of asides and detours, complications and random encounters. Reichl manages to make these “side dishes” essential to her story in a way that turns a romance mystery into a satisfying repast.
Kim Ode is a Star Tribune features writer.