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?