Ruth Reichl has written a novel. Perhaps you already knew that? I did not, until I picked it up somewhere to serve as airplane fodder. It was so delightful that it became more than airplane fodder. I enjoyed both the read and the ideas that flitted into my head as I read. The novel was both what I expected and delightfully surprising. And, I say this as someone who cannot remember if I read (or reviewed elsewhere on this blog) Tender at the Bone or Comfort Me with Apples, her earlier memoirs. I do know that her editorship of Gourmet magazine affected me and that I mourned the demise of the magazine seriously. Only recently did I begin sorting the shelves and shelves of them we have in the basement, with an eye to a garage sale, since I am much more internet epicurious now than root through the magazines curious. I mourn the person who used to read the issues voraciously (though not all the articles, I must admit. What I was after was the recipes).
Here is what did not surprise me: the novel is about the closing of a magazine focused on food. The magazine is called Delicious! and is headquartered in New York. So very Gourmet sounding, with the magazine even being labeled "iconic." The focus is on a youngish woman who leaves college to take her ideal job, as an assistant to the editor of the magazine. She is the major thrust of the novel, and is worth knowing. At least the following themes come together: (a) Billie (the main character) has a complex relationships with family, with loss, and with food; (b) the magazine is filled with both history (most especially in the building in which is ensconced, which is a very old mansion) and characters whose lives are both entangled and defined by their relationship to food related passions; and (c) history matters for the plot also focuses on letters Billie and pals find in the library of the mansions I have just mentioned. The letters, which form a fair amount of the novel, are from a young girl named Lulu Swan to James Beard during World War II. Reichl does a nice job of catching the tone of an uncertain youngster who grows to adulthood during the course of the novel, and also of showing us Billie growing as she pursues the history in the letters and emerges into the world around her in new ways. There is a kind of loveliness to the ways that by pursuing history Billie arrives at her own present.
There are a few terrific side bits (well, perhaps they are more central than I am admitting) -- a cheese shop, a restaurant with a chef named Thursday, and other moments of foodie insight about how and why people are, across generations, linked through food. I imagine the cheese shop as I write -- and did so as I read. And, I admit to wanting, in some ways, to go to Thursday's restaurant, The Pig. There is a butcher as well. I'm not sure I want to learn to butcher, but I was briefly tempted while reading this book. I also loved the place of architectural history in the novel
One thing that is magical about the book is the palate that the main character has. She can tell what is what in every mouthful she encounters. I cannot do that. I wish I could. There is an episode in which she identifies something as curry leaves -- and the words she uses to describe the taste are perfect. Likewise, Lulu Swan succeeds in becoming a terrific cook, and knows that is something crucial to who she is.
One thing I thought of throughout the book is personal: the recipe for a kind of cupcake that my aunt, who recently died, used to make. They were a world war II recipe, involving raisins and spices and flour and, most definitely, bacon fat. The discussions of rationing, including the contest Lulu and her mother enter into with her mother's co-workers about stretching ration coupons, reminded me that the cupcakes which meant so much to me may have had a different meaning in my aunt's memory of WWII. I do not know if one can really cook milkweed pods or if they really taste like cheese (and I am unlikely to try that out), but the tales of making do that Reichl offers reminded me that today's fashionable foraging are more than that in many circumstances.
A second thing to which I reacted in a complex way was how Billie transformed her appearance in the course of the novel. Here, I am assuming that Reichl meant for her to see her own beauty that she had been hiding for a variety of plot related (psychological) reasons. However, I do wish, just as I wish not all characters ended up coupled up as a sign of happiness, that being fashionably dressed was not as important as it becomes. (Though I admit I liked that Billie's sense of style emerged as her own rather than someone else's.)
Finally, the end of the book includes an interview with Reichl that I liked a lot -- the questions included one or two I had myself, and Reichl sounds both warm and thoughtful in her replies. If you are a foodie fiction kind of person and read the book, I do recommend reading the interview. (Usually I find these tedious and silly. In fact, this book even had thoughtful questions for a reading group, and though I will never read this in a group, I will think about the questions.)
All in all, worth carrying around to various airplanes -- despite the fact I had too much weight with me! And, worth lingering over.