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Ruth Reichl has been acclaimed for her non-fiction writing. She was a restaurant critic for The New York Times and she penned the best selling memoirs “Tender At the Bone” and “Comfort Me With Apples.”
She also served as editor-in-chief for Gourmet magazine. In her new book “Delicious!” (excerpt below), Ruth Reichl turns her talents to fiction, though as she tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “when I was the restaurant critic of The New York Times, I wore these disguises and I loved inhabiting someone else and it was kind of a practice for writing fiction.”
“Delicious!” tells the story of Billie Breslin who comes to New York city to work for a food magazine that Reichl says is very much like Gourmet, though Billie “is a 21-year-old who is really nothing like me, except that she loves to cook.”
Reichl also answers a lightning round of Hobson’s food questions, including her current favorite restaurant, which she says is Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Poncatico Hills, New York.
On why she made her fiction debut food-themed
“Writing about food is my default. It’s — I mean, I see the world food first, and most of the food in here is food that I have tasted. You know, the gingerbread, which is sort of central to the whole thing, is — I wanted to imagine the most — I mean, that was a little backwards, because I imagined the most fantastic gingerbread I could think of, and then I actually had to create it. But most of these things are actually flavors that I know.”
“My whole idea is to, you know, try and make people hungry, try and make people taste these things. But, you know, this is not a food book. I mean, this is really a coming-of-age book of someone who, like me, does see the world food first.”
On what it was like writing fiction for the first time
“I loved writing fiction. I mean, once I found the character, or the characters, and knew who they were and knew their back-stories, it really — I mean, I went into my studio every day, thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen to Billy today?’ And my husband keeps telling me to stop mystifying this, but, I mean, for me, it really is, like I didn’t know … In fact, very different things happened than what I expected to happen. Characters who I thought — I mean, I started with some people I had worked with at the magazine, and they then demanded to become themselves.”
On the role of World War II-era food in the book
“World War II really fascinated me because it’s the only time that everybody in this country sat down at the same table, because eating on rations was your patriotic duty. And I found in a used book store a whole pile of Department of Agriculture recipes from World War II, and I was fascinated, because the recipes are terrible. I mean, these things that the Department of Agriculture set out were so bad that I sort of imagined this little girl, Lulu, trying to — you know, her dad’s in the war, she’s trying to cook, she’s 12 years old, and the first thing she makes is a real recipe I found in one of these pamphlets called ‘liver gems,’ which was, like, the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
On getting special treatments in restaurants
“If they recognize me, I mostly get the Ruth Reichl treatment. And I have to say that I feel like, you know, after writing about food for 45 years, maybe I’ve earned it.”
By Ruth Reichl
“You should have used fresh ginger!”
The words flew out of my mouth before I could stop them. I glanced at Aunt Melba to see if she was upset, but she was looking at me with undisguised admiration. “Why didn’t I think of that!”
“And orange peel.” I wanted her to look at me that way again.
“Any other ideas?” Aunt Melba was rooting around in the vegetable bin.
She emerged holding a large knob of ginger triumphantly over her head, then went to the counter and began to grate it, sending the mysterious tingly scent into the air. “How come you didn’t say something last year?”
“Would you have believed me?”
She swiped at the thick red curl that had fallen across her right eye and grinned ruefully. “Ask advice from a nine-year-old?” She reached out and tousled my hair. “Now that you’re ten, of course, everything’s changed.”
“You make this stupid cake every year.” My sister was annoyed. “It’s never very good. Why don’t you just give up?”
“Because it’s the only kind of cake your father likes.” Aunt Melba reached for one of the beautiful ceramic bowls on the shelf above her. “And your mother always used to make it for his birthday. I’m trying to keep tradition alive.”
“You should have asked Mom for the recipe.” Genie was a year and a half older than me, and she had opinions.
“I did. But she would never give it to me. My sister was funny that way. And then it was too late.”
“We’re going to get it right!” They both turned to stare at me; I wasn’t exactly known for self-confidence, but I could taste the cake in my mind. Strong. Earthy. Fragrant. I remembered the nose-prickling aroma of cinnamon when it comes in fragile curls, and the startling power of crushed cloves. I imagined them into the batter.
Aunt Melba was grating the orange rind now, and the clean, friendly smell filled her airy kitchen. The place was a mess; eggshells were everywhere, the counter was covered with splotches of sticky batter, and bags of flour spilled onto the floor. Ashtrays filled with half-smoked cigarettes were scattered among the ceramic plates and bowls Aunt Melba had made; she was famous for them. In the middle of it all sat a couple of forlorn cakes, each missing a tiny sliver.
Aunt Melba put the new cake in the oven and we began to clean up. The scent of gingerbread whirled through the room and out the window into the Montecito hills. Down below, the Pacific sparkled. “It smells pretty good,” said Genie hopefully.
Alas, this cake was doomed to join those abandoned on the counter. “What now?” Aunt Melba sounded discouraged, but she searched my face as if I had the answer. I liked the feeling.
“Cardamom!” I said, mustering all the authority I could. “Cardamom? How do you even know about cardamom?”
“She practices,” replied Genie, a slight edge to her voice. Smart and beautiful, she was used to taking charge. “You should see her.”
“Practices?” asked Aunt Melba.
“Yeah,” said Genie. “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.”
I didn’t know she’d even noticed. At first it was just curiosity; why did fennel and cumin, identical twins, have such opposing personalities? I had crushed the seeds beneath my fingertips, where the scents lingered for hours. Another day I’d opened a bottle of nutmeg, startled when the little spheres came rattling out in a mothball-scented cloud. How could something so delicate have such a ferocious smell? And I watched, fascinated, as the supple, plump, purple vanilla beans withered into brittle brown pods and surrendered their perfume to the air. The spices were all so interesting; it was impossible to walk through the kitchen without opening the cupboard to find out what was going on in there.
Aunt Melba gave me the oddest look. “And you remember them?” She was crushing cardamom pods, and the deep, musky scent zipped around the kitchen.
“More,” I said, “use more.” How could you ever forget the smell of cardamom? Or cinnamon? Or clove?
I don’t remember how many times we made that cake. Each time Aunt Melba thought it was good enough, I insisted that she try again. I had made a discovery: Having the flavors in my head meant I could re-imagine them, put them together in entirely new ways. I wanted to keep doing it forever.
The kitchen was in chaos, but now each cake was better than the last. Late in the afternoon, Aunt Melba mixed the sixth or seventh batch of batter; this one had crushed peppercorns, sour cream, and orange zest. I greased the pans, Genie put them in the oven, and Aunt Melba set the timer. Just then the room began to shake. It was one of the earthquakes that I like—the roller-coaster kind that feel as if the earth is merely shrugging off the blues. None of Aunt Melba’s precious plates broke, but when we opened the oven, we found that our cake had crashed.
The next day, we tried the recipe again. “No earthquakes now,” Genie whispered as she put the pans into the oven. This time the cake was high and brown, the spices so delicately balanced that each bite made you want another. It was rich, moist, tender. We brushed it with bourbon, added a fragrant orange glaze, and it was perfect.
“This is even better than your mother’s.” Aunt Melba reached to caress my cheek; her palm was so soft. “It’s a gift, you know. Like an ear for music. You got it from her. She used to do that thing you do, sniffing spices. Did you know that?”
Everyone was always telling my sister how much she resembled our late mother. Not only was Genie brilliant and beautiful, she was also artistic, popular, and most likely to succeed at almost everything. I was the shy one, sitting in my room, writing little stories. No one had ever said I was like Mom in any way.
But I had inherited her gift. Now that I knew it, I hugged the knowledge close.
Excerpted from DELICIOUS! by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.