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Delicious: A Novel

By Ruth Reichl

Random House

374 pages, $27

By Janice Okun

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

It involves a secret room and an intricate code. Not to mention a doughty heroine. What book are we talking about ? An old-time Nancy Drew?

No, no. It’s the first novel written by Ruth Reichl, a culinary four-star of the late ’90s. It’s a not-quite adult book, centered around food, but there are striking similarities.

Devoted foodies – even those not so devoted – will recognize the name. Reichl zoomed to the top of the upscale food world when she became restaurant critic of the New York Times. Her claim that she visited august eating places wearing a wig and other disguises was intriguing; the reviews were solid and charming..

So Reichl zoomed what some people thought was even higher when she became editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, spending 10 years on the job. Then Gourmet ceased publication.

The staff, from the editor down, was stunned.

”Delicious,” a very autobiographical piece of work, describes their shock and fear movingly.

It’s one of few really touching moments, in fact, in this likable romp which centers on Billie Breslin, a young woman with acute taste buds – think musical perfect pitch – who becomes assistant to the editor of an iconic food magazine called Delicious! and learns to love eating in New York City. In her privileged position she meets all manner of devoted Manhattan-based food personalities – butchers, delicatessen owners, restaurateurs and the like – and learns to appreciate, even love, their devotion and eccentricities.

Then the place shuts down and Billie discovers a hidden room in the old mansion where the magazine has been housed.

And guess what’s stashed there? A series of letters from a young girl called Lulu Swan to the late James Beard, supposedly on staff at Delicious! many moons ago. (Beard, a 300-plus pound giant was one of the truly great promoters of genuine American cuisine before and after World War II when everyone thought the only really good food was French. He was very successful but perhaps in these days of “imaginative” food not as much revered as he once was. Still, at least one really great quote – “The only thing that will make a souffle fall is if it knows you’re afraid of it” – appears in Reichl’s book and survives him.)

I digress. Billie and her guy, an architectural historian named Mitch Hammond, decide to see if Lulu is still alive so they can get her approval to publish the letters. They end up in the wilds of Ohio – there’s a great description of the Cleveland market, by the way, and well, you can probably guess where this is going..

One criticism of Reichl’s book is that it is so predictable. (Did she really have to rely on the old Hollywood cliché of Billie’s increasing sexiness once she changed to contact lenses?) And then there’s this: Reichl never met a food comparison she didn’t like.

And sometimes she overreaches.

Nutmeg is “mothball-scented” and has a “ferocious smell.” Ginger has a “rain forest smell.” Huh? As the New Yorker, one esteemed magazine that is thankfully still alive, used to say: “Block that Metaphor!”

Some aspects of the book I really liked. For instance, the description of the food testers’ and recipe developers’ labors in the kitchen at Delicious! magazine. Once a product was ready, they would yell out “taste!” and everyone in the room would grab a fork, take a bite and start to criticize. It’s funny and it’s on target.

This is a good read, obviously, for anyone interested in what the upscale food world has become. And the book comes with a recipe.

Billie’s Gingerbread figures prominently in the text and is evidently a Reichl favorite. It’s an easy recipe too. Sort of like a fruitcake without the fruit. I like the idea of the orange rind in the mix. And I certainly approve of the bourbon soaking mixture.

So I’m going to try it. Knowing Reichl, I have no doubt it will work. This recipe has been tested to the hilt.

And, if I’m lucky, when I take it from the oven the thing will have what she calls a “carnival scent.”

Now that’s what I call an apt description. And not only of the cake.

It sums up the whole book nicely.

Janice Okun was the longtime food editor and restaurant critic of The Buffalo News.