Once upon a time I had mused about how it would be cool to be a food writer before all the food blogs started popping up all over the cyberspace. The only piece of food writing I had ever done was about leek. My enthusiasm did not venture further. For now, I figure I love words more than eating and I need all the time to read books that I want to read , some of which are already in my possession and that include memoirs by chefs and authors who write about their experience and experiments with food. What usually attracts me to food writings is the convictions these chefs illustrate in pursuing their passions and creative journeys. Some authors write about their personal struggles with food and drinking problems. In Spoon Fed, Kim Severson has written about how she finally found solace through the stories of eight cooks when she was lost between the lessons her mother taught her and the ones she was trying to teach her own daughter. These cooks offered her crucial wisdom and changed her life from a drinker who channeled her passions into failing relationships, alcohol and professional ambition and almost losing herself in the process. One of the cooks is Ruth Reichl who taught her to compete only with herself.
Years ago, when I first read Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, I enjoyed the author’s food writing so much that I had to get Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples. When I read that Reichl was going to try her hand at fiction, I awaited the publication with much anticipation and when I eventually got hold of the novel, Delicious, I was delighted. I then realized that I had bought too many books that I wanted to get through so I was no longer enthusiastic about stories which centre around food. I enjoy reading memoirs and that is probably the primary reason that I find Ruth’s earlier books engaging and delightfully delicious.
Reichl’s debut novel is a fiction about Billie Breslin who has travelled to New York to take up a job at Delicious, the most iconic food magazine in New York but the publication is abruptly shut down soon after she has started working. While the colourful staff at Delicious have to move on to other jobs, Billie has been retained to uphold the “Delicious Guarantee” – a public relations hotline for complaints and recipe inquiries. When she stays behind in the magazine’s deserted downtown mansion office, she stumbles upon a secret room hidden in the magazine’s library where she discovers the letters of Lulu Swan, a twelve year old who wrote to the legendary chef James Beard during World War II. When she first interviews for the position at the food magazine, she is asked to cook for the editor and that sends her into a full- blown panic attack. She then makes a real impression with her amazing gingerbread, its recipe is provided by Ruth Reichl at the end of the novel. Billy is one of those gifted foodie who is described to have the perfect palate but due to some issues of her own, she has lost her urge to cook.
Here is a snippet from the story.
“ Taste this.” Thursday thrust a large wooden spoon into my mouth. Her eyes watches closely as I swallowed. She has fed me a fluffy cloud, no more than pure texture, but as it evaporated it left a trail of flavor in its wake. “ Lemon peel,” I said, “Parmesan, saffron, spinach.” She held out another spoonful, and this time, at the very end, I tasted just a touch …something lemony but neither lemon or verbena. It had a faint cinnamon tinge . “ Curry leaf!” “ I’m impressed.” Her hands were on her slim hips and her voice was – what? Sarcastic? “ But I didn’t mean it as a test. I just wanted to see if I’m getting anywhere with this new gnocchi.” “That’s an amazing combination. The saffron’s brilliant – it gives it such a sunny flavor. But what made you use curry leaf ? I never would have thought of that .” “ It kind of came to me at the last minute. So you think it works?” “ Yes ! But maybe you should use a little more?”
Through her prose, Reichl once again conveys the pleasure and comforts of food and how in the face of darkness and loss, food can make life endlessly delicious even when the going gets tough. Is that why there are so many food reality television shows going on that makes food seem like such a complicated subject? Delicious is a food novel that depicts food adventure as magical and it tells a story about how food can connect people and help Billie and Lulu heal their pains and confront their past.
Ruth Reichl’s passion for food is infectious.
Years ago, I read Julie and Julia by Julie Powell before watching the film. As a francophile, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Julia child‘s autobiography My Life in France compiled by Julia Child and her husband’s grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme. As someone who cares a lot of about butter, I certainly love everything that is made with butter and think only butter butters. I only have very limited repertoire when come to baking and cooking thus I cannot possibly become a food buff. But I appreciate all kinds of musings and writings inspired by food. You can imagine my delight when I came across The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes, one of my favourite authors. Barnes writes that he is an anxious pedant cook. He is a late-onset cook who follows recipes to the letter and adheres to gas marks and cooking times. He trusts instruments rather than himself. In his narration, ‘while I now cook with enthusiasm and pleasure, I do so with little sense of freedom or imagination I need an exact shopping list and avuncular cookbook. ‘
Julian Barnes muses,
‘ The ideal of carefree marketing- waltzing off with wicker basket over the arm, relaxedly buying what the day has best to offer, and then contriving it into something which might or might not have been made before – will always be beyond me.’
‘ Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental. – JULIAN BARNES , The Pedant in the Kitchen
Julian Barnes‘s prose is impeccable.