Ruth Reichl’s bestselling fiction debut about sisters, family ties, gourmet food, and a young woman who must finally let go of guilt and grief to embrace her own true gifts is a dazzling addition to Reichl’s beloved memoirs that have long illuminated the theme of how food defines us.
Emily Giffin: What made you want to try fiction?
Ruth Reichl: Fiction is my passion, my addiction, the thing that has gotten me through every tough time. I can’t imagine life without it. When I was a child, people used to joke about me always having my nose in a book. I’m so grateful to all the authors who gave me entire worlds to vanish into, and I’ve always hoped that I’d be able to pass that gift on. But as a longtime journalist, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I started saying that if I didn’t have a day job, I’d try writing a novel. And then, there it was: Gourmet was gone, and it was time to try. You, of course, already knew this, but I found that writing fiction, creating an entire universe, was pure pleasure.
EG: You set the novel in the world of food magazines. How much of the book is based on your experience at Gourmet?
RR: The scenes at Delicious! are invented, but they certainly reflect what took place at Gourmet. The test kitchen, for instance, is very much like the one we had at the magazine (except that there was no mean Maggie). The Delicious! Guarantee is completely made up (although I do think it’s a good idea), but Mrs. Cloverly’s first complaint is real. The call (from an anonymous reader), came long before my time at Gourmet, but it was a story that Zanne Stewart, the executive food editor, loved to tell. Beyond that, the Gourmet staff was both quirky and kind, and I like to think that if Billie Breslin had shown up at the magazine, we would all have fallen in love with her and taken her under our wings.
EG: Food plays such a vital role in all your work, and seems inextricably tied to the understanding of the characters themselves. How is food a portal to a character’s essential nature?
RR: If you watch what people eat, you can find out so much about them. Eating is learned behavior; one of the ways cultures define themselves is by teaching children what to eat. That’s why most religions have rules about food. But as we grow older, we also begin to make our own food choices, and they are equally telling. If I tell you that I love very spicy dishes, I’m not just talking about food; I’m telling you that I’m an adventurous person. If I tell you that I don’t eat red meat, I’m giving you an important piece of information about myself.
As a writer, you know how useful this is; food is an easy way to telegraph information about a character. Say you’re writing about two mothers: One feeds her children Happy Meals every night and the other makes homemade baby food from organic vegetables. You’ve told your readers a great deal about these women in very few words.
EG: Your heroine, Billie Breslin, is in her early twenties. Why did you choose to explore this particular time in a woman’s life? Was there a real–life inspiration for Billie?
RR: Billie is completely invented. But when I started writing Delicious! I was consulting for Gilt Groupe, where I was surrounded by young women who were smart, hard–working, interesting, and completely different from my own generation. I really admired them, and I wanted to explore how it felt to be twenty–one right now. It’s such an important time for a woman, a time when you end up making so many choices that impact the rest of your life.
EG: You have given Billie a perfect palate. She can parse taste like grammarians parse sentences, yet she is phobic about the kitchen. You write so movingly about this situation, almost as if you experienced it yourself. Did you?
RR: In my early twenties I suffered terribly from phobias (although cooking, happily, was not one of them). But I was trying to convey how debilitating they are. You never know where the phobias come from or when they will appear, so you live in a state of constant dread. The fear of the phobia might even be the worst part, and each time you get through it, you feel that you’ve experienced a miracle. There is still no good science on phobias, but my own feeling is that they’re a way to avoid thinking about your real problems, a way you keep yourself from getting on with your life.
EG: Billie’s relationship with her sister, Genie, was a powerful anchor for her, but she was also in her sister’s shadow. How does this loss lead to Billie’s growth as a person?
RR: We all have someone in our lives whom we admire—-and who makes us feel small. Moving out of that shadow is one of the steps in growing up. For Billie, having a big sister as accomplished as Genie was a terrible burden. Although much of the time this was only in her own head, Billie always felt that she was being unflatteringly compared to her wonderful big sister. For Billie to be able to see Genie as she really is, to understand that Genie is not perfect, is extremely liberating. It means that now she can, at last, see her own self clearly too.
EG: What did Billie learn about family (and food!) while working for Sal at Fontanari’s?
RR: Sal Fontanari is one of the first people who really sees Billie in all her wonderful complexity. He understands her talent, is drawn to her passion for food, and wants to pass his own knowledge on to her. And Sal is the opposite of perfectionist Genie; for him the important thing in life is savoring what is right in front of you. Sal teaches Billie to live in the moment, to love your work, your family, and every minute of your life.
EG: New York’s Greenwich Village and Little Italy are like characters in the book. What drew you to these particular neighborhoods?
RR: I grew up in Greenwich Village, and spent my weekends wandering around Little Italy. I love everything about that part of New York, from the old family businesses (like Di Palo’s, the model for Fontanari’s) to the new artists and immigrants who keep this historic neighborhood young.
EG: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Billie’s discovery of Lulu Swan’s letters to James Beard. Where did this idea originate?
RR: I’ve always been fascinated by the way America ate during World War II; because of rationing, it was the one time in the history of this country that we all ate at the same table, ate the same food. It was also a time when women came into their own power, and America has never been the same. So I’ve been collecting cookbooks from that era for a while.
Then, when Gourmet closed, I went into the magazine’s library and took one last look around. (It was nothing like the wonderful Delicious! library—-it was just a windowless storeroom.) I noticed a file cabinet I’d never seen before, and when I opened it up discovered that it was filled with letters going back sixty years. I thought they’d be interesting, but sadly they were mostly complaints and recipe requests. I was meant to be packing up my office but for some reason—-I can’t really explain it—-I sat down right then and wrote the letters I wished I had found.
It was a gift, really. Lulu came to me fully formed. Having her write to James Beard was natural; in the early years he wrote for Gourmet. I spent an entire happy afternoon channeling Lulu. Then I put her letters away, and didn’t think about them again until I started writing the novel.
EG: How did Lulu’s discovery about her father help Billie come to terms with her own loss?
RR: There’s no “right” way to feel about loss, but there’s almost always an element of anger. And with that anger comes guilt: How can you be angry at the dead? Lulu and Billie had both idealized people, and then learned a terrible truth about them. As Lulu relates her father’s story, she’s able to admit that she is furious at him. It is an important moment for Billie: Lulu’s anger helps her come to terms with her own conflicted feelings about her sister.
EG: I was so touched by Billie’s relationship with Sammy, the travel writer at Delicious! Their developing friendship—-a twentysomething young woman and a seventy–plus gay man—-is one of the novel’s great pleasures. How would you characterize that friendship?
RR: I think of Sammy as Billie’s fairy godfather. He waves a wand, takes her on a magic carpet ride, saves her from herself. But it’s not until she saves him right back that their friendship really flourishes. What’s important about their friendship is that they begin to feel so safe with each other that they can risk being vulnerable. You can’t really be friends with anyone until you’re willing to trust them.
EG: What’s next for you?
RR: I have a cookbook coming out: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. I’m working on a memoir about the Gourmet years. And I’ve started my next novel.