Restaurant critic, cookbook maven, editor of Gourmet magazine: “It’s startling, really,” says bestselling author Ruth Reichl.
“I’ve been writing about food for 45 years.”
Known for Gourmet and her memoirs (Tender At The Bone; Comfort Me With Apples; Garlic and Sapphires), Reichl, 66, has just published her first novel, Delicious! It’s the story of a young woman who lands a job at a food magazine and then discovers a cache of important old letters there; it’s a coming-of-age/mystery combo about getting established in New York City, far from home.
And yes — food is involved. The protagonist, Billie, is a brilliant cook with a perfect palette, although for reasons you’ll have to find out for yourself, she doesn’t cook anymore.
Although her delightful memoirs are often mistaken for novels, actually writing a novel was a big change, admits Reichl. Delicious! is a feel-good read, which made Reichl feel great after writing it.
“It seems like everything I read now is edgy and depressing,” she says. “I wanted to write a book that talked about the place of food in our lives, and the things I really care about, but I also wanted it to have a happy ending.”
Delicious! was on the bestseller list almost immediately.
As one of the best-known (and best-loved) food writers on the planet, Reichl is no stranger to success, but according to her, it’s all luck and timing.
The native New Yorker wrote her first cookbook at 21.
“I’m really fortunate. I was two minutes ahead of the curve,” she says. “In the ’60s, when I liked cooking, nobody else did. And I got to learn on the job, which you couldn’t do today.”
When she went to write her first cookbook, she consulted a publisher, “and they did not say, ‘Can you cook?, Where did you learn?, Have you tested your recipes?’ They said, ‘Hmm — interesting idea!’ It was before the cookbook revolution.”
Reichl lived in Berkeley, Calif., during the ’70s, where she was part of what amounted to a culinary revolution. She wrote about food and restaurants for the Los Angeles Times for a decade, eventually returning to New York in 1993 with her husband, TV news producer Michael Singer, and their young son (who grew up to be feature filmmaker Nick Singer.)
She then became restaurant critic for the New York Times.
When former Conde Nast honcho James Truman asked Reichl to be the editor of Gourmet magazine in 1999, she said no. At first.
“I said to him, ‘I have the greatest job in the world, so why would I do this? But I can tell you what I think you should do with that magazine.’
“I started talking about how it was time for an epicurean restaurant to move beyond recipes, and restaurants, and fancy travel and start talking about serious issues. It was time to talk about the industrialization of food. And what was going on in the farms and how our food had changed.”
Says Reichl, “I’m really passionate about this stuff. I don’t know about Canadian politics, but the only way we’re going to change the food system in the U.S. is if we change the tax structure.” Referring to agribusiness lobbying and subsidies, she adds, “There’s a reason why, when you go to McDonald’s, a salad costs three times more than a hamburger.”
Reichl ended up editing Gourmet for a decade, until the magazine ceased publication in 2009. The article she’s proudest of, “is the piece we did about the tomato pickers in Florida who were literally, at the time, working under slave conditions.”
Reichl has influenced an entire generation of food writers, chefs and home cooks. The winner of six James Beard Awards, she’s already working on a memoir of the Gourmet magazine years as well as another cookbook memoir and two more novels; she has a blog (find it at www.ruthreichl.com) and intends to write about the Rural & Migrant Ministry, a group she supports that helps undocumented farm workers and the rural poor.
“For me it’s important to exercise these different muscles. I get to do a fun book, I also get to deal with serious stuff. It’s one of the things I love so much about sort of, having paid my dues — now I get to do a lot of things I want to do.”
Does anyone have the courage to cook for someone as accomplished as Reichl?
“Friends do,” she says laughing. “There’s a group — we go to their house, they come to ours. They know I couldn’t care less, I’m just so happy to be invited to someone else’s house for dinner!”
Reichl says the food she cooks is getting simpler and simpler, something she’ll emphasize in her next cookbook.
“I think we in the media have a lot to answer for, in that we made people think they should all be chefs, and every meal should be perfect ... and really, it’s not so much about the food as it is about gathering people around your table. And getting them to pay attention to each other.”
Review: Reichl’s first novel tells a Delicious tale of love, loss and food
Ready for the beach? Don’t forget your copy of Delicious! — food writer Ruth Reichl’s first novel.
And bring a cooler, because the food references in Delicious! will have you thinking about snacking.
In Delicious! we first meet Billie Breslin as a girl of 10, still a child but capable of keeping up family tradition by baking the perfect gingerbread cake. Billie has an older sister, Genie, who is the prettier, smarter one, but Billie has inherited her mother’s perfect palette. No spice or ingredient of any kind can escape her notice.
Fast-forward, to Billie 11 years later in New York, landing a job at Delicious! magazine. (Although author Ruth Reichl says she has little in common with her central character, Billie moves through the same world of food and publishing that Reichl inhabits.)
Our plucky heroine is a long way from home on the west coast and has to find her sea legs in New York.
Luckily, people seem to warm to her quickly, and she soon has two jobs and several new friends.
Billie encounters foodies, eccentrics, shop-owners and various other colourful characters along the way; as soon as she starts to feel at home, however, the magazine is shut down. Billie is the sole employee left, hanging around to answer reader letters and honour a money back guarantee.
From its coming-of-age beginnings, Delicious! now shifts into mystery/history mode.
Billie discovers a secret room in the magazine’s library, a room stuffed with old letters — including those exchanged between famed cook James Beard and a girl named Lulu during the Second World War. The letters have special meaning for Billie, who has a series of obstacles from her past to overcome.
Delicious! provides Billie with a journey that includes love, death and the whole damn thing. There’s even a makeover, too, among the plentiful food references.
For fans of Reich’s writing, Delicious! is a major departure, a bit like watching a chick flick from your favourite documentary filmmaker.
It’s an unabashed romance novel, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Reichl, who consumes novels herself, says she loves the escape such books provide, and Delicious! has that to offer.