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Delicious!: A Novel by Ruth Reichl
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Delicious!: A Novel

by Ruth Reichl

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I can almost guarantee that this review will be rife with cooking/food analogies – but with this book – that’s simply unavoidable.

I’ve read all of Ruth Reichl’s non-fiction books and have loved them. She has a way of describing her memories or life events in words that evoke such feeling, that open all of a reader’s senses; she is a natural fit for fiction.
A central element of her stories is food – which is one of the reasons I love them. The tastes, smells, sensations of food and the description of the preparation of it are so evocative and enjoyable that as I started “Delicious!” – I felt a shiver of delight.

“Delicious!” begins with the creation of a very special cake. The main character, Billie, has an amazing palate, is able to detect all the elements of a recipe, sense even the most subtle notes of flavor. We meet her as a young girl, with her sister and her aunt as they try and recreate a flavor from the past. We rejoin her life again as she is a young woman embarking on a new life in New York. There, she is dazzled by a world of incredible food, wonderful stories, and colorful people. The reader is lucky enough to take this journey with her.

“I opened them to find Kim dancing with a molten river of chocolate. I stood hypnotized by the scent and the grace of her motions, which were more beautiful than any ballet. Moving constantly, she caressed the chocolate like a lover, folding it over and over on a slab of white marble, working to get the texture right. She stopped to feed me a chocolate sprinkled with salt, which had the fierce flavor of the ocean, and another with the resonant intensity of toasted saffron. One chocolate tasted like rain, another of the desert. I tried tracking the flavors, pulling them apart to see how she had done it, but, like a magician, she had hidden her tricks. Each time I followed the trail, it vanished, and after a while I just gave up and allowed the flavors to seduce me.”

The first section of the book is a treat for the senses as the reader, through Billie, tastes what she tastes, and experiences what she does in one of the world’s most amazing cities. But as the story continues, the focus moves from Billie’s present in the world of food and culinary journalism, to a story – a mystery – from the past. Billie unearths some letters from a young girl named Lulu, who during World War 2, corresponded with James Beard. As Billie reads Lulu’s letters, she has a similar experience as the reader does as tastes, customs, people come alive for her in a way that is very powerful and that brings Lulu and her world to life.

“We could hardly believe that the war was really over and the boys were going to come home, and…well, you’ve seen the pictures. You know how it is when your feet have been asleep and suddenly the blood comes rushing back? You start sensing parts of your body that you had forgotten were there. It was like that. Everything felt good and clean and possible. If you hadn’t lost anyone, you felt blessed. And if you had, for that moment at least the sacrifice seemed noble; after all, we had saved the world.”

There is actually quite a bit going on in “Delicious!” – with many seemingly disparate elements. They shouldn’t work well together - and yet – they do. (A bit like the peppercorn that is used in that very special cake from the start of the book.) All of the characters and stories and sounds, tastes and smells blend together to create something amazing. This is a book that, within a few pages, makes you curl your legs up underneath you and settle in…and never want to leave.

As if the book wasn’t comforting and delightful enough – my copy includes a conversation between Ruth Reichl and Ann Patchett!!!! (One of my favorite writers!)
In “Delicious!”, there is a great deal of information. Details about World War 2, Federalist architecture, food rationing and foraging, cooking (of course), the treatment of Italian Americans during the war years, and more. But like I said, it all works well together. As Ann Patchett comments, “That’s an enormous amount of research, but you didn’t go overboard at all. The information that found its way into the book feels both natural and essential, which is really a trick. I often feel like I’m being punished with the author’s research (I learned all this and so will you!).”

This was such a wonderful book. I consumed it far too fast – but will savor it for a long time to come.

(Sorry – but I did warn you.) ( )
  karieh | Apr 4, 2014 |
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