To food people, Ruth Reichl hardly needs an introduction — she's probably the most famous living food writer, the MFK Fischer of these restaurant-obsessed times. She was editor-in-chief of Gourmet for a decade, restaurant critic for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times before that, and author of three bestselling memoirs. Now she's written a novel, her first.
Delicious! tells the story of Billie Breslin, a young, eager food writer who moves from California to New York to take a job as assistant to the editor of Delicious! magazine. During her time there, Breslin stumbles on a treasure trove of letters in the magazine's library between James Beard and a young girl during World War II, and her life is never quite the same.
Reichl has always excelled at food descriptions, and Delicious! doesn't disappoint. It's a book that makes you hungry, whether for the freshly pulled mozzarella at the cheese shop where Breslin works on weekends or for the dumplings she eats on the street in Chinatown. And though the non-culinary parts of the plot tread familiar chick-lit territory — the man Breslin ends up with is obvious from his first introduction, the friends she makes come a little too easily, the secret in her past isn't as salacious as it wants to be — overall the novel is a weird, plucky exploration of nourishment and what happens when the things that nourish us stop doing their job.
We caught up with Reichl by phone to talk fiction vs. nonfiction and what she misses about the Bay Area.
SF Weekly: Why now a novel after so many nonfiction pieces?
Reichl: I am addicted to fiction. It's my greatest pleasure. I grew up in publishing and I always thought that writing fiction was the greatest calling. I always said that if I didn't have a day job I would write a novel, and all of a sudden [when Gourmet abruptly closed] I didn't have a day job. And it was kind of like, I guess I have to do this now, or at least try. The other thing is, I wasn't sure I could do it, and my way of getting through life is to always try and do something that I'm not sure I can do. I think it's the thing that keeps you young.
The magazine library makes a great setting in the novel. Were there a lot of letters hanging around at the magazines where you worked?
Two things were the genesis of the book. One was that I found a whole cache of artifacts from World War II at a thrift store. Things from the Department of Agriculture, how to make a victory garden, how to cook on rations, things about the Women's Land Army, which I had never heard of, things about the Crops Conservation Corps, which I'd never heard of, so that was all really fascinating to me.
And then at the very end when Gourmet closed, the first thing I did was lock the library, because it was a beautifully curated library. Every cookbook that had ever come out since 1941 had gone through there. I went in to look at it and found a file cabinet with a whole trove of letters in there. They weren't interesting letters. They were mostly recipe requests. And I went home and wrote the Lulu letters. Just wrote them all right then. It just came to me. So that was probably the beginning of the book.
You spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. Do you think the food scene has changed since you lived here?
It's changed some, just because the money has changed it. When I moved to the Bay Area in 1973, we were food-obsessed. A group of us were starting restaurants, and juice bars, and Alice [Waters] was starting Chez Panisse, and Victoria Wise was doing Pig By the Tail [both instrumental in starting Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto"], and we were a group of people who were very food-obsessed but we were a small group. It wasn't a big movement. And it was a very political movement, in fact. It all came out of this sense that we wanted to control the food and do honorable work, it came out of the free-speech movement and the antiwar movement, and now there's kind of rampant foodieism. It's still probably the best place to be a cook of any place in America. The food products are extraordinary. It's just now I feel like so many people spend their money going out to eat, I wander through the Ferry Building and I'm kind of stunned by people eating everywhere. It's still a very vibrant, exciting place to eat. But the money has changed it.
I love eating in the Bay Area. State Bird is so fantastic, Atelier Crenn, I mean, there are people who are doing things that no one is doing anywhere else. Quince and Cotogna. It's remarkable. And the other thing is the markets. I mean, Bi-Rite? There's not a Bi-Rite anyplace else. There's not a Berkeley Bowl. Berkeley Bowl's like Disneyland to me. I go to the Bay Area and just sort of wander through that thinking, "Oh my God, what I wouldn't give to have this in New York."
Which places do you have to eat when you come back?
Chez Panisse is very dear to my heart. There really is no restaurant like that anywhere in the world. I'm really in love with Zuni and worried about what will happen now. I always try to go to Swan Oyster Depot because to me it is the Bay Area. I've been going there for a million years.
Ruth Reichl will be in conversation with San Francisco Chronicle writer Leah Garchik on Monday, May 19, at 5:30 p.m at the Nourse Theatre (275 Hayes), and speaking and signing books on Wednesday, May 21, at 6:30 p.m. at Omnivore Bookstore (3885 Cesar Chavez).
Read the full interview online at sfweekly.com/sfoodie.