By Ruth Reichl

(Random House, /427, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Ruth Reichl once had the considerable power to put a restaurant out of business – or make one a roaring success – simply by reviewing it. As the chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, she was feared and courted in equal measure, which is why she used a wardrobe of wigs and eyeglasses to help avoid being detected. She later became editor in chief of Gourmet magazine (defunct now) and executive producer of the two-time James Beard Award-winning Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie on PBS, as well as editor of the Modern Library Food Series. Reichl also has published three memoirs, all best-sellers: Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires.

Reichl often gives talks about food and culture, and will be the speaker at this year’s gala fundraiser for the Hartford Public Library, “One Big Sizzling Summer Night,” which takes place June 12 at the library, 500 Main St., Hartford. Tickets are $150 and $250.  Information and reservations: or: 860-695-6342   

What is this book about?

Billie, a young food enthusiast, leaves California for a dream job at a New York magazine called Delicious!, and a side job at a famous Italian cheese shop, where she meets an interesting man she dubs “Mr. Complainer.” But suddenly, the magazine goes bust, and Billie winds up hanging on to run its complaints hotline. By chance, Billie finds a hidden room in its library and letters from a 12-year-old girl, Lulu, written during World War II to food world icon James Beard. Billie learns a lot from Lulu’s letters, which help her overcome her fears and family problems. 

Why you’ll like it:

Just as you will find with foodie websites, such as Yelp, there can be vast differences of opinion about the tastiness of food…and books. Two powerhouse review sites, The New York Times and The Washington Post, call this book a dud and didn’t mince words. Other reviewers have been kinder. I have not yet read “Delicious!” but I did read “Tender At the Bone,” Reichl’s very frank memoir about growing up with a manic-depressive mother who served meals with a heaping helping of food poisoning. That book was a great read, and on that basis, I would give “Delicious!” a try. If you do not find it “delicious!”, do try her memoirs instead.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “Former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet editor Reichl’s (Tender at the Bone) first foray into fiction is like an iced white cake. It follows a traditional recipe, it is really sweet, and it is dull. A young California woman named Billie Breslin (a barely disguised Reichl) lands a job at a food magazine called Delicious! in New York City just before it is shuttered by budget-minded bigwigs. As part of an interim position fielding calls and correspondence from subscribers, Billie stays on as the lone employee in the old mansion from which the magazine was published for years. A stock character named Sammy, the fey former travel editor for the mag, leads her to a beautiful library on an upstairs floor, where they uncover letters written to the famous James Beard from a girl named Lulu during the Second World War—letters that have been hidden in a secret chamber by a long-gone librarian named Bertie. Billie embarks upon a scavenger hunt for the remaining the letters, and, in the end, on a journey to find their aging author. In order to get in as much foodie language as possible, Reichl has Billie working at a deli in Little Italy on the weekends, where she meets Mr. Complainer, her love interest. Though Reichl is a marvelous food writer, the language used here is often cloying.”

From Dwight Garner’s New York Times review: “Ms. Reichl’s novel, however, is strictly kid stuff. It’s a gauzy ode to the liberating virtues of pleasure, glazed with warmth and uplift, so feebly written and idea free that it will make you wonder if the energy we’ve been putting into food these last few decades hasn’t made us each lose, on average, a dozen I.Q. points. . . .”

“Delicious! is an enjoyable read overall. I just had to take a deep breath, relax and remember this book is supposed to be fun, albeit one where food facts are sprinkled like fleur de sel across a just-sliced, vine-ripened tomato,” says The Chicago Tribune’s Bill Daley, formerly of The Courant.

“Either Reichl respects her readers’ worldliness, or is showing off her vast and varied knowledge just a teensy bit. Probably both. When an older woman tells Billie that time is no more than a trick of the mind — ‘some days, I’m convinced that my young self is still here, somewhere, just walking down a different street’ — the leap to a pensive Reichl, working without her most visible and prestigious platform, isn’t difficult,” says the Minneapolis Star Tribune.   

Library Journal says:  “Not a yummy cookbook or memoir from the former editor in chief of Gourmet, but this first novel is still drenched in food lore and love. Billie Breslin is thrilled to find work at New York’s upscale foodie magazine Delicious, then devastated when it is shut down. Left behind to answer the magazine’s public relations hotline, she finds a letter that makes her rethink her own life.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Tragedy, war, fairy-tale makeover, trauma resolution, romance and—of course—food are just some of the ingredients in dining critic and celebrated memoirist Reichl’s (Garlic and Sapphires, 2005, etc.) first novel, a bittersweet pudding with some lumps in the batter. Food metaphors irresistibly suggest themselves when considering this author’s flavor-driven debut, set in the New York offices of Delicious!, a magazine not unlike Gourmet, where Reichl was editor in chief. At the fictional magazine, Billie Breslin, 21 and gifted with a prodigious palate, gets a job as editor’s assistant and encounters a kindly cast of foodies, including travel editor Sammy and cheese shop owner Sal. Billie writes emails to her older, prettier, more popular sister, Genie, with whom, implausibly, she set up a successful cake-baking business in California when they were 10 and 11. But Billie’s mysterious past is merely one strand of Reichl’s tenderly written yet overstuffed story, which shifts focus after the magazine is suddenly closed down. A cache of wartime letters from a child named Lulu to famous chef James Beard, which Billie unearths in a hidden room behind the magazine’s library, is used to pull in some odd, heavyweight issues, including World War II injustices against Italian-Americans and the Underground Railroad. Meanwhile, Sammy has encouraged Billie to open up about the secrets of her past, after which it’s time for contact lenses, a cool haircut and a new wardrobe, converting the ugly duckling into a kooky swan. This helps Billie’s attraction to Mr. Complainer—one of Sal’s picky customers and a top-rated architectural historian—take wing. An argument and the search for Lulu prolong the story, but Reichl manages to bring matters comfortingly to rest with a kitchen epiphany and a recipe. Reichl’s first fictional outing is something of a curate’s egg—good in parts.”

Says Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post:  “To me the big surprise about “Delicious!” is that there’s so little originality to it. The characters are mostly stereotypes, and the plot is far more contrived and sentimental than one would expect from a writer as outspoken and independent as Reichl . . . The search for Lulu is one of the novel’s several sentimental story lines, two others being Billie’s attachment to Sal Fontanari and his wife, who run an Italian cheese shop in Little Italy and have hearts bigger than all of Bologna, and the mystery of Billie’s beloved older sister, a beauty who “had star power even when we were children, and by the time I was a teenager, every guy we ever met was so busy looking at her slanting violet eyes and curly blond hair they barely noticed me.” But of course noticing Billie is the whole point of “Delicious!,” though how that comes to pass is for you to learn with no further help from me. . . .“Delicious!” is amiable enough and its heart, like the hearts of Sammy the travel writer and the Fontanaris, is certainly in the right place, but it is a surprisingly amateurish performance for a writer as skilled and versatile as Reichl. Whether writing it taught her that fiction is a lot harder than many people believe has not been disclosed, but the evidence she herein presents proves the point.”

When is it available?                             

Ruth Reichl’s novel is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany branch.

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