Last month I met a couple who within minutes informed me that they were “foodies.’’ It reminded me of my parents describing themselves as “golfers” or friends in the ’80s identifying as “Deadheads.”
But the foodies did more than wear a uniform. They carried a flag. It seems there is a checklist of qualifications in order to wave it: Being on a first-name basis with the sous chef at Gramercy Tavern; membership in a farm-to-table club; vacations built around pilgrimages to La Tour d’Argent or Chez Panisse; and a tendency to refer to former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl simply as Ruth. Like Kobe. Or Jesus.
I remarked that I had an advance copy of Reichl’s debut novel, “Delicious!” They looked at me with avid interest bordering on awe. It was as if I had invented pork belly lollipops.
I was in awe myself. I thought Reichl’s previous books, especially “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me with Apples,” were wonderful. The people are deftly profiled, the situations entertaining, and the descriptions of food and ingredients so vivid I learned to read her far from the fridge.
Sadly, my enthusiasm waned in the first few chapters of “Delicious!” as I followed neophyte food journalist Billie Breslin as she traipses around Manhattan like “Sex and the City” meets the “Iron Chef” cooking breakfast at Tiffany’s. Billie has a perfect palate. She lands a job at a long-revered food magazine called Delicious!; she becomes the first non-family employee of an exclusive Greenwich Village cheese market; she leaps giant napoleons in a single bound.
The supporting cast also elicits a little eye rolling. There’s Sammy, a flamboyant travel writer who speaks as if he swallowed an Eton grammar book, and Sal, the gruff Italian deli owner who you’ll be shocked to learn has a heart of gold. There’s Mr. Complainer, the food snob and New York architectural historian who becomes Billie’s kind and gentle lover. Let’s just say, if the guy you’re dating seems too good to be true, he’s probably a fictional character.
I was deeply relieved when the story picked up steam. Several chapters in the magazine closes its doors, and Billie finds herself alone in a beautiful, old Manhattan mansion (after her initial description it’s impossible not to go to The New York Times real estate section and search out comps), fulfilling the magazine’s famous guarantee to always respond to readers about printed recipes that once appeared in the magazine. She is the lone employee, doomed to consoling readers who can’t understand why substituting a few odds and ends from their cupboards ruined the recipe.
Alone in this alt-Gracie Mansion, Billie begins correspondence with a few kooky home cooks. A secret room within leads to the discovery of letters written by a young girl in Ohio during World War II to the legendary food writer James Beard. It’s an intriguing plot and gives the author the best opportunity in the book to demonstrate her strengths. The girl, a precocious cook named Lulu, is suffering with the rest of the country through wartime shortages and must be inventive with ingredients to keep up both her and her mother’s morale.
Adding to the girl’s woes, her aviator father is shot down over Europe (twice!), but she has nothing if not spunk and keeps her correspondence going with the great gourmand throughout the war. They discuss food and recipes ranging from the use of milkweed pods to the “Perfect War Cookie.’’ Billie and her cohorts must decipher clues, cunningly planted by a librarian long ago, to unearth the next letter in the series. Where the letters lead is not altogether unexpected, but it’s good fun.
Less successful is a plot involving Billie’s older, idolized sister and the cooking venture they once had in their hometown of Santa Barbara that leads to tragedy. It feels layered on and not integral to Billie’s journey. The resulting catharsis when she confronts the past is not well woven into the other plotlines. Billie’s relationship with Mr. Complainer/Mr. Perfect stretches all plausibility. All told, it’s a stew with disparate ingredients.
“Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me with Apples” were outstanding memoirs, but Reichl’s fiction debut falls short of showcasing her talents and vast culinary experience. As my mother used to gently conclude about disappointing reads, “Well, it was a cute story.”