It couldn't have been easy for editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl when Gourmet, the magazine she had run since 1999, was abruptly shuttered by parent company Conde Nast in 2009. The elegant monthly magazine had been in business since 1941, and Reichl had worked tirelessly for ten years to make it relevant in a rapidly changing gastronomic climate. As talented an editor and writer as Reichl was, however, she couldn't save Gourmet from the publishing world's pessimistic number-crunchers. Conde Nast axed the once-glamorous Gourmet in favor of its other food magazine, the bright, ad-generating, family-friendly Bon Appetit.
With all her insider knowledge of New York's wildly competitive, ambition-driven, gossip-riddled restaurant and food world, one would expect to see Reichl tapping out her own tell-all of that heady time. After all, she has already written three best-selling, well-received and unflinchingly truthful memoirs, starting with Tender at the Bone, which described her childhood with a mentally disturbed, food-hording mother, followed by her freewheeling life as a hippie chef turned restaurant critic in 1970s California. Comfort Me with Apples had her touring Europe with Saveur editor Colman Andrews, getting a sentimental and culinary education at his side. Garlic and Sapphires detailed her wig-wearing, persona-creating experiments as the all-powerful restaurant reviewer at the New York Times. Clearly, Reichl can write, and write well, on a variety of topics.
But while good novelists usually have the chops to be good memoirists, the reverse is not often true. Despite being based around a Gourmet magazine stand-in named Delicious!, Reichl's first foray into fiction, Delicious!, is less roman à clef than Nancy Drew-ishly-plotted novel about an ugly duckling coming into her own in the big city. Fluffy, sweet, and wholly unbelievable, Delicious! isn't being marketed as a young-adult book, but it might as well be, except that it's too sugary for a genre now dominated by dark, dystopian fantasies and sexed-up vampires. There's no devil wearing Prada here. Instead, everyone's gorgeous, everyone's charming, and (most unbelievable of all) everyone's friendly, eager to get instantly helpfully chummy with Reichl's frumpy little nobody of a heroine, Billie Breslin.
Because isn't that exactly what life is like in the New York media world? Billie shows up, a badly dressed college dropout with dorky glasses and baggy khakis, who suffers panic attacks when asked to cook, and suddenly the editor of the city's top food magazine wants her as his assistant. On her very first day, the glad-handing owner of the best Italian deli in the city hires her on the spot for a second job that turns into a second family. Within days, she's hanging out with her new magazine pals, drinking endless glasses of wine and scarfing up plates of duck hearts at their cool chef friends' new restaurants. Oh, and at the two-month point, that silver-fox editor takes her out for expensive sushi and assigns her a long feature story about the deli where she's working. Without asking permission from her deli-owner boss, she writes it, brilliantly, in a single all-nighter. And why worry about negligible publishing salaries when dad's paying the rent on that sweet walk-up on hipster-ridden Rivington Street? Even the character's name manages to evoke both The Breslin, a hot restaurant hangout helmed by Brit-chef April Bloomfield (fictionalized here as Thursday Brown, owner of The Pig, a hardly-disguised version of The Spotted Pig, another of Bloomfield's popular restaurants) and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning, longtime NYC journalist Jimmy Breslin.
Hired to answer the phone and fetch coffee, suddenly Billie's swimming in feature assignments involving cute farmers and voluble fishermen and fun travel all around the country, because that's just how brand-new careers go in the kooky New York magazine world. See, Billie has that one-in-a-million skill, the pitch-perfect palate. She can pick out a whisper of curry leaf in a spinach-saffron-Parmesan gnocchi that Thursday pops into her mouth the minute she walks into The Pig's crowded kitchen. Oh, how she regrets that in a "chocolate that tastes like rain," she can pick out only "hyssop and maybe myrtle, and a bit of cassia" before "the flavors get away from" her.