Food-writer-turned-foodie-author Ruth Reichl has whipped up a stellar beach read in her first novel, Delicious! (Random House 2014, 374 pp.). Abounding with self-discovery, new beginnings, and characters who begin to feel like friends after only a few pages, it’s a book best read in a single sitting on a long, sunny midsummer afternoon.
A driven college dropout gifted with a supernatural palate but paralyzed by a lack of self-confidence, Billie Breslin is an understated superhero—complete with an elusive alter ego (Wilhelmina the Cheesemonger). Billie quits school to move from California to New York for a new job as an assistant at the amazing food magazine Delicious!. She immerses herself in the lives of her coworkers and their foodie world—until an unexpected turn of events leads her to explore the magazine’s past, and her own, with fresh eyes. The entire novel is a weaving together of food and memory, where flavor acts as Billie’s closest companion and confidante. Rich in descriptive language, the work is habitually tantalizing because it hints at a world of scents and flavors beyond ordinary perception. Reichl elevates taste to the level of an intangible. Reading her description of something as simple as a slice of Parmesan is like suddenly acquiring perfect pitch after a life of partial deafness—you have no way of understanding how miraculous it is until you experience it yourself.
For such a warm and descriptive novel, Delicious! has received surprisingly harsh reviews. One after another, the literati of NPR, The Boston Globe, LA Weekly, KQED, The Washington Post, and even Reichl’s own The New York Times, slap it with derogatory genre labels: “strictly kid stuff,” “marshmallow fiction,” like a “Nora Roberts […] romance novel,” “Fluffy, sweet, and wholly unbelievable […] too sugary [for even] a young-adult book.” But don’t let the critical reviews dissuade you, or shame you out of enjoying a good read. Although those in the know may not deem it “Literature” with a capital L, Reichl’s work jauntily weaves together many themes, bouncing from coming-of-age story to memoir to food writing to detective story to historical fiction to wish-fulfillment romance.
Like a medieval romance, Delicious! is simultaneously insular and otherworldly. It spans time and place through cleverly placed letters and flashbacks. Escape literature at its finest, the novel knows exactly what it’s doing. Only 10 pages in, Billie explains that “Working at Delicious! sounded like joining a club, like entering a little world of its own, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Needed.” Explicitly “non-corporate,” this “little world of its own” pulls us out of the harried business world and transports us into other, more lovely realms: a gorgeous building housing the last bastion of New York in its publishing heyday, an esteemed magazine staffed with eccentrics who value passion over efficiency, the flavorful cheese shop whose owners value conversation over capital. Imagined as an escape from corporate reality, Delicious! invites us to imagine the professional lives we aspire to—passionate, conversational, collegial, and personally fulfilling.
So if you’re looking for justification to read genre fiction, look no further. Take this engaging, fun read with you on vacation. Suspend your disbelief and let it wile you with its optimistic charm. Let it give you hope that we, like Billie, will reconcile ourselves to our pasts, and be brave enough to shape our futures. Oh, and try the gingerbread recipe in the back—it landed Billie her job at Delicious!, so you never know what it’ll do for you.
Reichl has also written a number of memoirs. Our favorites include: Tender at the Bone, Garlic and Sapphires, and My Kitchen Year—all of which include some fantastic recipes.