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September 23, 2015

I borrowed a copy of Ruth Reichl’s novel Delicious! from a friend who discovered Garlic and Sapphires at the same time I did and is similarly engaged in reading everything else we can find by this author. It’s a nice enough little novel, with a heroine, Billie, who is different from Ruth herself, although similarly engaged in culinary arts.

Billie gets hired at a magazine called Delicious! which publishes recipes and is run out of a grand old New York City house called the Timber mansion. She answers phone calls and writes letters about the Delicious! guarantee, which is that if the recipe doesn’t work, the magazine will refund the money that a reader spent on ingredients. She has a regular caller and finds the work interesting, although she takes a second weekend job working at a cheese shop called Fontanari’s because she likes the people there. Her first article for the magazine is about Fontanari’s, a coup because he doesn’t allow writers in his place. The article includes some of Mr. Fontanari’s banter with one of the customers that they call “Mr. Complainer.”

Eventually Billie finds out some secrets about the Timber mansion and those who have worked there over the years. She gets interested in tracking down the complete file of letters from a little girl, Lulu, who was learning to cook during WWII, to James Beard, who worked for Delicious! during those war years. The letters play a big part in the novel, and readers grow almost as interested as Billie and her friend and colleague Sammy in finding out more of Lulu’s story.

The sad parts of Lulu’s story finally help Billie to be able to tell the sad parts of her own story to Sammy and Mr. Complainer, who turns up as the Timber mansion is being sold. As Lulu grows up, she begins to sound a little like Reichl herself: “a great meal is an experience that nourishes more than your body.”

When Billie meets her regular caller from Delicious!, an elderly woman named “Babe,” the sad part of her story sounds almost exactly like my mother’s story of being widowed:
“until Elton passed on, I’d never known a moment of loneliness. I’d never even slept alone, not one night in my entire life. When I was growing up, my sister Susie and I shared a bed, and after I was married, Elton and I were never apart.”

There’s something in this novel for all tastes, so to speak. The older peoples’ tales, the tragic tale of Billie’s sister, the story of Billie’s makeover and romance, and the stories of how women learned to cook and cope during WWII.

The most unusual thing I learned from this novel is that if you cook milkweed pods, they taste like cheese. What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever cooked?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2015 2:55 am

    I would consider the most unusual thing I have cooked to be swallow nests (considered to be very benefiting for health in Vietnam)

  2. freshhell permalink
    September 23, 2015 9:45 am

    I’m not sure I’ve ever cooked anything that unusual. I did try squash blossoms once but the results were disappointing.

    • September 25, 2015 8:03 am

      I’ve eaten squash blossoms raw, along with other edible flowers at fancy dinners, but can imagine it’s difficult to cook them.

  3. September 23, 2015 12:30 pm

    Cooked milkweed pods taste like cheese? I had no idea they were even edible!

    • September 25, 2015 8:02 am

      According to the story (and others I’ve heard) during rationing, American women experimented with all kinds of plants, and parts of them that had never been tried before.

  4. the other theo permalink
    September 23, 2015 1:46 pm

    The most unusual thing I’ve cooked so far are probably ramps — a wild onion or wild leek. The wildest thing I’ve probably eaten is haggis, but my cooking hasn’t gone that far yet.

    • September 25, 2015 8:00 am

      Oh, with the farmer’s market here, I’ve seen garlic ramps, but not tried to cook them myself yet.
      Eleanor ate haggis when she was in Scotland during her semester abroad in London. She says it’s just mildly spiced sausage now, and quite good.

  5. rohanmaitzen permalink
    September 23, 2015 6:53 pm

    I never cook anything unusual – I don’t have enough skill to risk it! But this book sounds light and tasty. 🙂

    • September 25, 2015 7:58 am

      I’m with you. My mother used to cook unusual things–one time she made crackers! I don’t like messing around in the kitchen that much, though. Like Harriet the Spy about bed, I say about the kitchen “in and out, that’s my motto.”

  6. September 23, 2015 8:00 pm

    Most unusual thing I’ve cooked? Does tofu count? I enjoyed Delicious!, too, but not as much as Ruth Reichl’s nonfiction books. I’m looking forward to her new book coming out soon!

    • September 25, 2015 7:56 am

      Tofu counts; I’ve never cooked it.
      Glad to hear she has a new book coming out!

  7. September 24, 2015 8:39 am

    I am a fan of Ruth Reichl and have read most of her memoirs – and loved them all. She has one of the all-time-great mad mothers in literature and she certainly makes the most of her. I didn’t know she’d written a novel!

    • September 25, 2015 7:55 am

      Sometimes the great essayists aren’t good at novels–I’m thinking of Peter Mayle and Anne Lamott. This one was pretty good, though.

  8. magpiemusing permalink
    September 24, 2015 10:07 pm

    i feel like i need to read this. have you read laurie colwin’s two cookbooks?

    • September 25, 2015 7:53 am

      No–I see from looking her up that Colwin’s cookbooks include some memoir. Are they books about food, in the M.F.K. Fisher tradition? I love that, but I don’t read cookbooks.

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