Allen & Unwin
Ruth Reichl is one of the world’s most loved food writers with an encyclopaedic knowhow too. Few come anywhere close to her undeniable knack for succinctly capturing the visceral joy in discovering unfamiliar flavours that captivate the tongue and burn their essence into our collective memories.
A lifelong passion, her deft skill in the kitchen and keen sense of epicurean adventure has always been married with an uncanny ability to capture the experience in a riveting read. Up until now, that gift has been channelled into non-fiction, though this month saw the publication of her first novel, Delicious! from Allen & Unwin.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Reichl’s illustrious career began in 1972 when she published her cookbook, Mmmmm: A Feastiary. Born and raised in New York City, with a stint at boarding school in Montreal, Reichl moved to Berkley, California, with her first husband Douglas Hollis, where she became chef and co-owner of Swallow restaurant until 1977. As passionate as she is about the restaurant trade, Reichl is most well known for writing about that crazy business.
After a successful stint at the Los Angels Times, as both restaurant editor and then food critic, Reichl was drawn back to her home city to take up the illustrious, yet fraught with pit falls, restaurant critic role at the New York Times. Her memoir Garlic and Sapphires records the crazy lengths to which she was expected to go in order to ensure she received impartial service – not just conjuring up costumes and crazy wigs, but literally embodying new characters to dine incognito.
Three more memoirs, Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples and For You Mom, Finally, elucidate an incredible career that also includes the editor in chief role at Gourmet Magazine, until its untimely demise in 2009, and her current role as editor of The Modern Library Food Series, US TV spots and even executive director of a planned film version of Garlic and Sapphires.
This long and storied career informs much of Delicious! They say write what you know, and it’s clear that so much of Riechl’s professional, if not personal, life is wrapped up like a prosciutto parcel in this marvellously realised tale of a young woman, Billie Breslin, who ups sticks from San Francisco to New York City to take up a post with the fictional Delicious! magazine.
Riechl’s gift for summoning up the molecular break down of a fascinating flavour as it darts across the tongue, skims the back of the mouth and then settles slowly into a satisfied tummy will have you salivating. But it’s not all about her tales of the Delicious! test kitchen, a childhood baking gingerbread cake and her part-time role at an enticing deli run by loving Italian couple Sal and Rosalie Fontanari.
There’s a timely musing on the collapse of the print magazine industry (Gourmet anyone?), a mystery involving the hidden letters of a teenage girl, Lulu, with her fictional missives to the very real food writing legend James Beard, a dash of personal secrets woven into several characters’ backstories and even a hint of a much older war buried in the architectural history of Delicious! There’s romance, strained family bonds and loss, all dished up in one decadent feast.
Reichl’s debut is certainly a tad sentimental, and there’s definitely scope for a touch more depth to her characters, but the rich sense of place portrayed here more than makes up for these small quibbles. And oh, the food! This novel is guaranteed to leave you feeling very hungry indeed. Thankfully you’ll be rewarded with a very special recipe once you’ve fully digested all that Delicious! has to offer.
Other morsels from Reichl’s collection:
Mmmmm: A Feastiary (cookbook) (1972)
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (1998)
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table (2001)
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (2005)
The Gourmet Cookbook: More Than 1000 Recipes (2006)
Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way (2009)
Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen (2009)