Book review

Ruth Reichl's 'Delicious!' is a sumptuous read

The food-writer-turned-novelist has a satisfying and psychologically astute way of describing the twists that take place in relationships

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“Delicious!” lives up to its name and is harder to put down than a bag of artisanal potato chips. It’s the first novel by Ruth Reichl, whose stellar claims to fame include a decade as editor of the once groundbreaking magazine Gourmet, former restaurant critic for The New York Times and author of numerous memoirs including “Tender at the Bone” and “Garlic and Sapphires.”

By Ruth Reichl
Random House ($27)

Some may find Ms. Reichl’s debut work of fiction a bit sugary, but many will devour this scrumptious confection. “Delicious!” tells the coming-of-age story of a young woman named Billie Breslin (think Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada” before Stanley Tucci gives her a makeover).

Newly arrived in New York, lonely Billie’s hair is a mess and her clothes are dreary. But she has one quality that sets her apart: an extraordinary palate. She seeks employment as the editorial assistant at a publication called Delicious!

Ms. Reichl writing about a food journal is like Barack Obama talking about the presidency: She’s an authority on both its ups and downs. The book’s early chapters are great fun as Ms. Reichl describes the inner workings of the magazine.

The handsome editor is Jake Newberry, who admits: “I don’t find interviews all that revealing.” Maggie is a mean food editor whose hair “looks like it was chopped off with a carving knife.” There are test kitchens where the cooks sample recipes they are about to print. Someone yells “Taste!” and all the others drop what they’re doing to run over and offer their opinions.

The fabulous Greenwich Village mansion in which the offices of Delicious! are located includes a photo studio, the eccentric den of the travel writer, Sammy, and – for suspense – a locked library.

Billie is given a tour of lower Manhattan that reads like a foodie’s fantasy. One stop is a restaurant called The Pig, owned by Thursday Brown, “America’s most famous female chef.” Thursday’s most treasured belief is that “any problem can be solved with the right recipe.” Next is a shop that sells “the best chocolates in the city,” which are displayed on velvet and lit like jewels.

The butcher offers “a loin of meat the color of withered roses” wrapped in pink paper. Finally there’s Fontanari’s, whose air is scented with “the milky perfume of cheese.” Sal “knows more about cheese than anyone in the city,” and Billie gets a crash course in the difference between spring, summer, autumn and winter Parmigiano.

Just when “Delicious!” starts to feel overly sweet, Ms. Reichl changes up her menu. The plot shifts as Billie discovers a cache of correspondence between the great chef James Beard and a precocious teenage girl in Akron, Ohio, written during World War II. The letters allow Ms. Reichl to switch focus from America’s current ostentatious interest in food to a time when rationing and foraging were a necessity.

Ms. Reichl has a satisfying and psychologically astute way of describing the twists and turns that take place in relationships. She details the maturity of Billie’s feelings for her father, her Aunt Melba and especially her sister, Genie. She gives Billie a taste of romance and – spoiler alert – the inevitable makeover from a gay godfather.

There are hundreds of novels that do these things well. Where Ms. Reichl excels is in her knowledge of the things that people ingest and her astounding ability to express their sensory pleasures. She writes sentences such as, “I could taste the cake in my mind” and “I took a bite, stunned by the roar of cantaloupe juice inside my head.”

She’s intimate with the personalities of fennel and cumin. She’s thrilled by “the clean friendly smell of orange rinds” and the “raisiny aroma of Armagnac.” She loves “An old Meursault that tastes like butterscotch and sunshine.”

Ms. Reichl drops names that sizzle like batter on a griddle: Brillat-Savarin, Paula Wolfert, Henri Soule and Le Pavillon, Thomas Downing Oyster House. She makes wise pronouncements: “A great meal is an experience that nourishes more than the body” or “They weren’t buying food they were finding their way home.”

It’s these garnishes that elevate “Delicious!” beyond a standard meat-and-potatoes plot and turn it into a feast.

Margie Romero is communications manager at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

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