Ruth Reichl joins the wildly popular novelists Jodi Picoult and Kathy Reichs on a panel about bestsellers. It is a topic that the former New York Times restaurant critic knows well with a career that has spanned four decades with a multitude of bestselling cookbooks and memoirs, including Tender to the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples. Newer to Reichl is the novel. When it came time to try her hand at fiction, Reichl says she was not sure she was up to the task.
“When you are in a bad place in your life, you do the hardest thing you can think of; I tried to write fiction,” says Reichl. That “bad place” included the closing of Gourmet magazine in 2009, where Reichl had been editor-in-chief for a decade, following her distinguished career at the New York Times and earlier at the Los Angeles Times.
“With journalism, basically you know the story and it’s just a matter of how you tell it,” she explains. “With fiction you have to find the story. And if it’s working, you fall in love with your characters.”
Delicious! is Reichl’s debut novel and while writing it, she admits to falling in love with her main character, Billie Breslin: “I got up every morning excited to find out what was going to happen to her.”
Breslin is an intrepid 21-year-old who leaves her California family to take a job at a new food magazine (which eventually folds) in New York, where she finds herself immersed in Gotham’s world of foodies. She takes a part-time job at an Italian cheese store, where she stumbles upon the WWII correspondence between a young Ohio woman and James Beard. Aside from the fact that Billie works for a food magazine that folds, and crisscrosses the country, the author says Billie is nothing like her.
“If anything, I am more like Lulu,” she says, the fictional young woman in Ohio who wrote to James Beard requesting recipes using food rations.
While Reichl is no stranger to Beard—she has won the prestigious award that bears his name four times—she was not crazy enough to try and write letters for him. “He appears through Lulu’s letters,” she explains. But Reichl dug deep into Beard’s wartime experiences and did lots of research about victory gardens and rationing. “It’s the only time in America that we all sat down at the same table,” says Reichl. “Food was really considered one of the fronts in the war.”
Beyond Lulu, there’s a bit of Reichl in the character who is the cheese shop owner who can’t imagine anyone ever leaving New York. “I did not even realize I was writing a love letter to New York until I was done,” says Reichl. And now that she’s finished her first novel, readers can expect more fiction from her. “It’s like flying” is how Reichl describes writing fiction.