Ruth Reichl has a résumé any food writer would envy. As a national bestselling author, restaurant critic for both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and editor-in-chief of Condé Nast's former Gourmet magazine, she has made her mark in the culinary world. Now, she is dipping her toes in the fiction literary pool, a genre she considers the "most important thing in life."
On Mother's Day, Reichl spoke at Books & Books in Coral Gables about today's food-obsessed generation, the inspiration behind her new novel, and what she has to say to critics.
After working at Gourmet, Reichl went on to head the editorial side of the short-lived division of The Gilt Groupe, Gilt Taste. There, she worked closely with recent college grads and realized just how different the new generation was from her own.
"My generation had it easy," Reichl said. "This generation, there aren't jobs. These kids were grateful to have a job, are unbelievably hardworking and saw each setback as an opportunity. They don't expect everything to come to them and when it does, they're ready to absorb it."
It was these kids, who also happened to be entrenched in food, that inspired the main character in her new book, Delicious!: A Novel. Protagonist Bille Breslin leaves California to take a job at Delicious!, NYC's most iconic (fictional) food magazine. When the publication is abruptly shuttered, Billie discovers letters in the abandoned office written during World War II by 12-year-old Lulu Swan to renowned chef James Beard. Through these exchanges, the story unfolds in a manner that labels this piece under "coming of age" and "family saga."
Reichl was inspired to write this story after finding real letters in the old Gourmet office. While those she found were general office mail like recipe requests and complaints sent to the magazine, she decided to write some of her own; ones that she would actually find interesting from the perspective of a curious little girl. She compares herself most to the character of Lulu.
Photo by Cassie Glenn
Other works from Reichl include New York Times bestseller Tender at the Bone, a memoir of her culinary journey, and Garlic and Sapphires, a novel that recounts her career as a food critic and the various personas she adopted to go undercover.
"I feel like wearing those disguises was my practice for writing fiction. I know what it's like to think someone else's thoughts," said Reichl.
That practice, coupled with her desire to "feel what it's like to be a 21-year-old in love with food," created this much-anticipated piece. About 100 fans showed up for her afternoon talk at Books & Books, despite the holiday.
Last week, her former employer, the New York Times, published a rather unflattering review of the book. According to literary critic Dwight Garner, "Everything about "Delicious!" is cozy, closed off from reality, calculated to land buttered side up." However, that is exactly what Reichl was aiming for.
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"I like happy endings," she said. "This is a book I'd like to read. Much like reviewing a restaurant, you cannot judge what you wish they had done. You must judge what they're trying to do."
Connect with Cassie Glenn on Twitter @cassieinmiami.