Delicious! is a completely realistic novel, but in it, debut novelist Ruth Reichl does some significant world-building. The aesthete’s New York City is full of foodies with unique personal style, people who notice architectural details and interior design. In this world, “artisan” is more than a buzzword and taxis are for tourists – locals walk so they can observe the changing seasons and appreciate the details of urban life. It would all be insufferably fabulous if Reichl wasn’t so adept at sharing the sensual nature of their artistic appreciation, and if the characters themselves weren’t completely developed, three-dimensional, interesting people. Even when you don’t like them, you believe in Reichl’s characters.
Reichl was a food writer before she was a novelist, and for the first several chapters, I thought this was going to be a book about food. Shy protagonist Billie has dropped out of Berkeley and moved to New York to work at the historical cooking magazine Delicious!; the magazine is staffed by an eclectic cast of artsy characters and divided along faultlines that have more to do with personal history than office politics. As she establishes herself at the magazine, Billie also gets to know the butchers, bakers, and cheesemongers who supply the city’s best palates with Reichl’s lovingly described comestibles. It’s a pleasant premise, and entertaining enough to hold up a small novel. But when the magazine is abruptly shut down, the central conflict develops.
Billie discovers a secret cache of letters between the famous chef James Beard and a teenage girl in Akron, Ohio, written during the second World War. A legendary librarian has filed them according to an eccentric system that makes finding each successive letter a treasure hunt. Billie must race to find all the letters before the building is shut down. As in another food-centric story, Fried Green Tomatoes, the main character learns life lessons from an earlier generation that help her deal with her own greatest dilemmas.
Delicious! feels like a very feminine book with its luscious descriptions of meals and outfits, and its careful observations of interiors both physical and emotional. This is not to imply that the male characters in the book – or in real life – are not as sensitive to these things as the females. But with the single exception of the love interest, the male characters are all father figures or gay.
In Billie’s search for the letters, Reichl reveals her nonfiction past, cramming in copious research on a variety of topics. Exquisite (or excruciating, depending on your taste) detail on food history and ingredients is to be expected in a book set in a cooking magazine. But Reichl has clearly done her homework on the second world war, the Civil War and the Underground Railroad, and the history of New York City. I don’t mean to imply that proper research is the province of men (I myself am a nonfiction writer with a science degree). But the rich factual occlusions in Reichl’s mixture do provide a nice balance between left and right brains that help to remove the “chick” from her lit.
Although some aspects of the plot seem like foregone conclusions – the romantic outcome is no surprise, and you know on page one that Billie will start cooking again – it’s partly because the entire story is so plausible. Reichl has done a wonderful job of creating a story that is unlikely enough to be interesting without requiring almost any suspension of disbelief. Some episodes, like Billie’s fight with her new boyfriend, do almost nothing to move the plot forward, but have to be there because it’s what those characters would do. It’s the strength of this characterization that not only makes up for the book’s spots of predictability but also softens the disappointment when the book surprises you with realism instead of Hollywood drama.
Characterization may be the book’s literary strength, but its strongest impact may be that it leaves you with the desire to cook something fabulous. Even if, like me, you are the sort of person who has trouble with toast, Delicious! will make you more aware of what you’re eating. At least for a little while, absentmindedly stuffing your face or painstakingly counting calories will feel like poor substitutions for the sensual experience of food in Reichl’s world.