Delicious!: A Novel, the first fictional outing by Ruth Reichl, is less a novel than a long treatment for a certain kind of movie – the kind best enjoyed with decent wine, good friends, and bad food. Reichl is best known as the last editor of Gourmet and the author of a string of food-centric memoirs, the only one of which I have read is Comfort Me With Apples, a book that covers the beginning of her career as a food critic. Reichl won me over almost immediately in that book by confessing that when she first started reviewing restaurants, she struggled to get reservations or pay her tab, because she didn't have a credit card. By contrast, when Billie Breslin, the protagonist of Delicious!, moves to New York to take a job at a food magazine, her father offers to cover the first year's rent at her Manhattan apartment. She eats out frequently at restaurants that serve things like braised duck hearts and whole grilled mackerel. When, halfway through the book, her coworkers talk her into changing her look, the cost of her new haircut, clothes, and contact lenses is evidently not an issue. (Yes, Billie's development as a character hinges partly on a makeover, complete with her finally getting rid of her glasses. The transformation is realistically spaced out over several chapters, but it's practically begging to be rendered as a montage nonetheless.)
The characters in Delicious! are by and large flat and unbelievable, and not just because none of them seem to have to worry about money. The few quirks they're given flatten rather than round them. At least, I think the reader is supposed to be charmed by Sammy, the middle-aged food writer who takes a paternal liking to Billie and talks like a thesaurus-obsessed high school sophomore. When we first meet him, he says, in reference to his suit, “Peerless, is it not? I have been donning tweeds for eons. Each time my travels take me to London, I scurry off to the tailors of Savile Row. When you hit on something you like, cleave to it. That is my motto.” In real life, I'm partial to pretentious, overly decorous people, but I could neither stomach Sammy nor believe anyone else would voluntarily spend time with him. The character dubbed Mr. Complainer for the first half of the book – he's introduced as a difficult but secretly well-loved regular at the family-run boutique cheese shop where Billie works weekends – is a little more believable, but still weirdly one-dimensional. Sammy is gay, but other than that, the book's cast of characters is overwhelmingly straight and completely white. That's a fair reflection of the magazine industry, unfortunately, and the book does touch interestingly on the experiences of Italian-Americans during World War II, but non-white cultures get little mention here, except when their takeout is ordered.
Billie, too, is weirdly cartoonish, possessed of only two qualities, which the other characters bring up repeatedly: her neglected appearance, and her palate. We're told that from the age of 10 she's been able to easily create recipes in her head, and suss out trace ingredients in recipes. While her taste in food is sophisticated, Billie herself is naïve, or at least has few other interests; we don't know what she studied in college before dropping out, what she reads (apart from a series of found letters in the magazine's library), or whether or how she votes. The other characters, similarly, are defined largely by their relationship to food, but in ways that don't say much about them, other than to point out what they have heard of, what they can afford to buy in restaurants or stores. When Billie tells a friend she was worried she would hate her at first, her friend responds, “Hate you? With your palate?” It's not that I find it implausible that two people can become friends just because they enjoy food and drink the same way; far from it. But the comment comes across as weirdly shallow and snobbish, like telling someone you could tell she was cool because you know her jeans cost $300.
And that might be the most disappointing aspect of Delicious!. Up to now, Reichl's career has been marked by the consciousness that food is never just food. Under her leadership, Gourmet famously centered the political and socioeconomic contexts in which food trends occur; her memoirs are peppered with recipes that give us a deeper sense of who and where she was during the period the books covered. Here, food is just food. More accurately, the dishes and ingredients name-checked in the book are just props to serve a story that, despite a subplot involving lost letters from World War II and an elaborate puzzle game, is pretty straightforward. The morels and milkweed floss mentioned in the letters, the Chinese takeout on which Billie subsists (to her colleagues' chagrin), the house mozzarella at the cheese shop where Billie works weekends: these could be substituted for any number of set pieces that could serve the same narrative. Watercolors, say, or balls of yarn made from rare wools. Spread out over 373 pages, it's a waste of Reichl's gifts of perception and description – but like I said, I can see it compressing nicely into a 100-minute movie, with lots of close-ups of pretty food and a lead actress who bumps into things a lot. Still, if Reichl continues writing fiction in this vein, I hope she'll return to her prior tradition of treating food as a way to engage with the world – not as an end in itself.
PAIR WITH: a bottle of modestly-priced rosé and a box of heated frozen spring rolls from Trader Joes, because who the hell are these jackasses to judge your food choices?
Christen McCurdy is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Bitch, Pacific Standard, the Portland Mercury, the Oregonian and a host of regional publications and trades. She lives in Portland, Ore., with too many kitchen gadgets.