Give Billie Breslin a single bite and she can decode the most esoteric ingredient with astounding accuracy.
Which begs the question: Is Billie, the heroine in “Delicious!” (Random House; $27), a supertaster on par with her creator, former Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl? Reichl’s previous best-selling memoirs “Tender at the Bone” (1998), “Comfort Me With Apples” (2001) and “Garlic and Sapphires” (2005) detailed her past lives as a food writer at New West magazine, food editor of the Los Angeles Times and restaurant critic for the New York Times.
“It’s definitely not autobiographical,” Reichl said during a recent interview at a book signing sponsored by Rainy Day Books at Webster House, an early stop on her book tour for “Delicious!,” her first novel. “I used a few places I know. I used New York. I used a food magazine. I used a cheese shop. But the character, I’m nothing like Billie.”
Not even that exquisitely infallible palate?
“I just wanted to give her a superpower,” Reichl insisted. “Nobody has that palate. It’s a fairy tale.”
Fair enough. Yet even this fairy tale has the familiar rhythm and wit her fans have come to appreciate. (As part of her restaurant review methodology, Reichl was known for creating a persona with a name, complex history and a real-life disguise. Surely a dry run at character development.) And at times their parallel universes seem to collide.
“Delicious!” is the tale of 21-year-old Billie, a gifted cook who has been concocting the flavors of cakes in her head since childhood but because of a trauma freezes when asked to stand over the stove.
She leaves her family in California for an assistant-to-the-editor job at Delicious!, an iconic New York food magazine that introduces her to a world populated by passionate chefs, butchers, bakers and cheesemongers.
But Billie barely has time to digest her new surroundings before word comes that the venerable magazine will close. As her new-found food-writing friends try to figure out what’s next in their lives and careers, she is kept on to tie up loose ends in the offices, which are housed in a stately old mansion.
One day she wanders into the magazine’s long-shuttered library and comes across wartime letters written by a 12-year-old girl from Ohio named Lulu. Lulu seeks advice from James Beard, a real-life culinary sage who was, for a time, a writer at the real-life Gourmet.
Billie voraciously reads the World War II-era letters about rationing and gardening and foraging and hungers for more.
Coincidentally, Reichl was on a book tour for the Gourmet cookbook in 2009 when she got word that publisher Conde Nast was pulling the plug on the magazine. She continued with the tour to give the cookbook “a fighting chance.”
When she returned to the office, her colleagues already had left. In the eerie silence of the towering highrise office, she wandered into the Gourmet library, where she found a steel file cabinet of readers’ letters.
“I realized there was probably something fabulous here,” Reichl said. “The history of American cooking.”
And the seeds of her novel were sown: Before departing, she sat down and wrote the Lulu letters. The inspiration to set them in World War II came from a glassine envelope she found at an old bookstore while on tour containing pamphlets and brochures from the era. “It was the only time we ate together (as a country),” Reichl said. “Now it’s become such a class thing. (Back then) it was a defining time for food and women.”
After Billie finds the first Lulu letter in the Delicious! library, she is eager to hunt down the rest, which requires cracking a code. “I love puzzles,” Reichl said, although she never thought about writing a culinary mystery.
Reichl admitted she got sidetracked at one point with research on federal architecture, but she always came back to food as her muse: “I see the world food-first,” she said. “I just do.”
But can her novel win over the hearts and minds of those who cannot detect the faint cinnamon tinge of curry leaf?
“I think so,” she said. “I like happy endings. I like escapist literature. I feel that in hard times this is a book I can just vanish into.”