REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
The year 2009 was an an annus horribilis (horrible year) for foodies, with the end of monthly publication of Gourmet magazine after almost 70 years of continuous publication.
Wilhelmina “Billie” Breslin, the novel’s first-person protagonist, comes to work as an assistant to Jake Newberry, editor of Delicious!, New York’s signature food magazine. Billie is happy to get a job in publishing, especially in an era of disappearing advertising revenue — something common to all magazines. Subscriptions only cover a tiny part of any magazine’s revenue.
Billie has left her native California in an attempt to change her life and soon becomes immersed in the wonderful world of food in a city where ethnic food enclaves persist.
In Little Italy Billie meets Sal and Rosalie Fontanari, owners of Fontanari’s, an Italian food shop with authentic cheese selections and meats Italian style. Billie likes the shop so much she signs on for weekend work behind the counter. She doesn’t know it at the time, but the connection with Sal and Rosalie will change her life.
After passing the “Sal Test” Billie is accepted by the eccentric staff of Delicious! who inhabit a landmark building called Timbers Mansion. The midtown Manhattan house was built in the 1830s as a country house when New York City was a small city at the tip of Manhattan Island. The mansion — especially a hidden room — is actually a character in the novel as it allows Billie and a James Beard-like staffer named Sammy Stone to discover a series of letters from a 12-year-old girl from Akron, Ohio, named Lulu Swan to pioneering food writer James Beard, then on the staff of Delicious!
When the publishers of the magazine decide to shut it down, they keep Billie on as the sole employee, answering phones from subscribers and continuing the Delicious! Guarantee hotline. The publishers guarantee to refund the cost of ingredients to the magazine’s readers if the recipe doesn’t produce the desired results.
The letters to Beard show a wonderfully realized Lulu Swan, born about 1930. Lulu’s mother works in a defense plant run by Akron icon Goodyear and her father is in the U.S. Army Air Force (the present-day U.S. Air Force wasn’t created until 1947). Reichl expertly shows how the home front coped with the world at war, including blackout rules and wartime food rationing.
“Delicious!” is a genre breaking novel, combining aspects of historical fiction and a love story with a recipe or new food item on virtually every page. There’s even a recipe for Billie Breslin’s signature gingerbread at the end of the book. And I learned, thanks to the Internet, that Langue du Chat doesn’t involve the dissection of my favorite animals, cats!
Both foodies and general readers will enjoy “Delicious!” I guarantee it, just as Billie Breslin maintained the Delicious! Guarantee hotline!
About the author
Ruth Reichl, born in New York City in 1948, is the author of the best-selling memoirs “Tender at the Bone”, “Comfort Me with Apples”, and “Garlic and Sapphires.” She is executive producer of the two-time James Beard Award-winning Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie, which airs on public television across the country, and the editor of the Modern Library Food Series. Before coming to Gourmet, she was the restaurant critic for The New York Times, receiving two James Beard Awards for her work. Before that she was restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. She lectures frequently on food and culture. She lives in New York City with her husband, TV producer Michael Singer, son Nick and two cats. In October 2009, Conde Nast, publisher of Gourmet, said the monthly magazine would cease publication, replaced by special issues and TV programming. Bon Appetit, Gourmet’s sister publication at Conde Nast, will continue publication. Ruth Reichl’s website: http://www.ruthreichl.com.