Come, grab a bite

Come, grab a bite

Ruth Reichl is known for many things, among them her best-selling memoirs, including Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, as well as her years of reviewing restaurants for both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and as the editor-in-chief of the seemingly immortal Gourmet magazine — until it folded.

With the arrival of Twitter, Reichl added another genre to her résumé: haiku-like paeans to breakfast in any weather: “Sunny in Charlotte. Returned to rain.

Gray New York morning. Big bowl of ginger strewn congee. Chiles. Soy. Scallion.

So consoled.” The next day, it was still raining, but once again food came to the rescue: “Gray drizzle. Umbrellas up. Sidewalks sloppy.Rye bread, still warm. Herring: pungent, rich. Sour cream. Onions. Solace in the city.”

Now, once again employing her ability to convey the comforts of food in prose both specific and enchanting, Reichl has written a novel, Delicious!

Its title strikes me as perfectly apt, coming as it does from the woman who wrote: “Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious!”

In a recent interview with her friend the novelist Ann Patchett, Reichl confides, “The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things,” and later, “I’m interested in happiness.”

Reichl’s work does seem to be founded on the pursuit and celebration of pleasure over pain, joy over sorrow. “It takes a great deal of strength to be an optimist,” she adds.

The characters in Delicious! seem to know how to find pleasure in the face of struggles, darkness and loss.

Partly because of this theme, the novel offers many of the satisfactions of a children’s book.

Billie, the plucky heroine, has a perfect palate — arguably Reichl’s fairy-tale equivalent of being able to detect a pea under a stack of mattresses — and a dark and painful secret.

She works for a food magazine, Delicious!, whose offices are housed in a grand old Greenwich Village mansion and whose staff is as idiosyncratic a bunch of New Yorkers as you’ll ever meet.

On Saturdays, Billie moonlights at a fantastical Little Italy food shop whose owners have become like a second family. One of their regular customers is a mysterious man who turns out to be far more interesting than Billie at first realises.

The plot moves briskly. When the magazine folds, Billie remains alone in the enormous mansion to fulfill a pact with its readers — if they don’t like the way a recipe turns out, they get their money back.

While all her former colleagues disperse in search of new jobs, Billie and the unhappiest of these customers strike up an odd kind of friendship over the phone.

The novel presents a whole passel of surprises: a puzzle to solve; a secret room; hidden letters; the legacy of James Beard; and a parallel, equally plucky heroine from the past, who also happens to be a culinary prodigy.

The Timbers Mansion begins to reveal its secrets to Billie, one by one, and she becomes caught up in a decades-old correspondence stored in files in a hidden room, cross-referenced in a code devised by the magazine’s former librarians.

Billie enlists her friend Sammy to help crack the cipher, and off they go, deep into the past, while cooking and eating amazing meals in the present.

Reichl has clearly done a great deal of research, but its results are never deployed in a heavy-handed fashion. Along the way, we learn about (among other things) the terrible treatment of Italian-Americans in World War II, foraging, Federal architecture and the Underground Railroad.

Her New York is a fairy-tale town where beautiful food abounds, purveyed and cooked and grown by passionate cognoscenti; a town where singular eccentrics are surrounded by loving communities of friends who save them when they need it and where a newcomer with the right attitude is sure of success.

This is, of course, Billie. Delicious! is her story, first and foremost — the tale of her courageous optimism, her ability to find joy in ordinary things and her willingness to transcend the darkness in her past and fall in love with a worthy hero.

She’s the ideal Reichl heroine, embodying her creator’s most cherished beliefs, and in the end Reichl rewards her for these qualities, as befits any proper fairy tale.

No novel is perfect, and I had a few caveats with this one. Sammy’s formal, Latinate diction becomes overly mannered at times, and the dark secret at the heart of Billie’s cooking-related panic attacks is slightly far-fetched.

But these quibbles didn’t spoil my pleasure; they were like small glitches in an otherwise rich meal. I read Delicious! in one long sitting, stopping only to forage in the kitchen for a plate of cheese and cured meats, then going back later for dried fruit and nuts and a glass of good Rioja.

The novel opens with a test. Billie must cook for the editor in chief in order to be hired at the magazine.

Overcoming her panic, she makes her special gingerbread. She picks up “a knob of ginger, losing myself to the rain-forest fragrance.... The scents swirled around me: cinnamon, cardamom, pepper and clove.”

Reichl provides the recipe at the book’s end so her readers can create some culinary happiness of their own.

Ruth Reichl
Random House
2014, pp 380
Rs. 1,667