As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?”
Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this month’s column, food and its many seductions leads me down a winding path.
Reichl, Ruth. Delicious! Random. 2014. 400p. ISBN 9781400069620. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780679604617. F
Intimate, assured, and charming, Reichl’s debut novel captures the New York City food scene and those who create it with lavish detail and great warmth. Awkward, withdrawn, and suffering, Billie Breslin drops out of college and flees her West Coast home for the anonymous refuge of the Big Apple. What she finds is far more than escape—she eventually finds home. Her job working at the most important food magazine in the nation brings her in contact with a colorful assortment of chefs, writers, photographers, and shop owners. Their influence and welcome begin to transform Billie, and when she finds a trail of hidden letters written by a young girl from the Midwest to the revered James Beard, Billie sees her aimlessness transformed into a quest. Who is this child named Lulu who learns to cook milkweed and pumpkin leaves from the great Mr. Beard? What happened to her and her family during World War II? One of the magazine’s legendary librarians has secreted the letters in various files in the archives, leaving clues to each location in the card catalog. As Billie finds each letter, Lulu’s life becomes woven into the novel, adding a historical richness to the modern story of a woman forging a new future for herself. With the exception of the malpractice of the librarian, Reichl’s novel overflows with descriptions that ring true—vibrant images of food, a deft evocation of Lulu’s life, and vivid descriptions of place. She keeps a breezy pace and conjures an appealing group of characters as well. The talent for writing Reichl exhibits in her nonfiction shines through and rewards readers looking for a foodie take on women’s fiction.
Allen, Sarah Addison. The Sugar Queen. Random. 2009. 304p. ISBN 9780553384840. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780553905243. F
While Allen is known for her elements of magical realism (here most notably books that appear whenever one needs what they contain), her novels of women finding their feet make a nice pairing with Delicious!, despite Reichl’s lack of make-believe whimsy. Both authors use vivid descriptions and lush detail to evoke particular places and times, both offer a brisk yet engrossing pace, and both navigate themes of self-discovery and confidence. Dowdy, withdrawn, and wan, Josey Cirrini is a bit of a mess. Her mother controls her life, she is longing for the mailman (the hunky Adam), and somehow a woman from the wrong side of town has taken up residence in her closet. Delightfully, the squatter changes Josey’s life, putting her in contact with her community, helping her to break away from her mother, and revealing secrets and connections that unfold throughout the charming story.
Hendricks, Judith Ryan. Bread Alone. Morrow. 2002. 368p. ISBN 9780060084400. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9780062104687. F
Fans of Reichl who particularly enjoy the details of food and the lifestyle of those who get up every day to craft sustenance and delight from raw ingredients should enjoy Hendricks’s novel of bread—and of loss, love, and recovery. Like Reichl’s Billie Breslin, Hendricks’s Wyn Morrison has lost her way—her husband has dumped her, and she finds herself adrift in a new town far from what she has come to know all too comfortably. An anchor and a compass come in the way of a Seattle bakery. Wyn finds companionship and comfort in the early morning routine of baking; in the memories of her time as a student baker in France, where she learned the craft; and in her fellow bakers, who rise before dawn to begin their work. Also like Billie, Wyn is assisted by friends and a new love interest and, through their prodding, forges a new version of herself. Hendricks, like Reichl, creates a quick yet reflective pace and fills her novel with descriptions of place, sudden insight, and a romantic tone.
Wolff, Isabel. A Vintage Affair. Random. 2011. 384p. ISBN 9780553386622. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780553907704. F
For readers ready to exchange food for fashion, Wolff’s charming yet melancholy novel, involving a vintage clothing store, its owner, Phoebe, and Phoebe’s connection to Mrs. Bell (a client who introduces a story line involving the Holocaust), makes for a great next reading suggestion. Phoebe Swift has quit her job at Sotheby’s, abandoned her fiancé, and opened Village Vintage—all owing to her overwhelming grief and guilt surrounding the death of her best friend. It takes Mrs. Bell, and her story, to help right Phoebe’s listing world. Both Wolff and Reichl mine themes of loss and recovery, and both combine modern stories with those set during World War II. Each author also deftly captures her particular locale and pays lavish attention to detail—in Wolff’s case, the vintage scene with its hatboxes, full skirts, scarves, dresses, and jazzy pocketbooks. Wolff and Reichl similarly forge comforting paths through the rocky parts of these novels, creating a backdrop of sensation that all will turn out right in the end despite the current troubles.
Beard, James. Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom from the Dean of American Cooking. Bloomsbury. 2007. 352p. ISBN 9781596914469. $26.50; ebk. ISBN 9781596917156. COOKING/ESSAYS
Missing from Reichl’s novel are the imaginary letters Beard penned to Lulu. Readers know something of what the full correspondence might have entailed thanks to Lulu’s references, but to get a sense of how the real-life Beard composed, what he thought about, and the dishes he treasured, consider this compendium of essays and recipes. Beard selected each from his weekly syndicated columns and in them he discusses how food should taste and be understood. Hundreds of recipes are included, and their arrangement speaks to how Beard thought of discovering, making, and eating food. While there are stand-alone chapters on meat and fish, there is also a section covering bread, cheese, and wine and one on memorable meals, places, and people. Beard writes with an engaged and vivid tone, in a voice that is at once intimate and assertive.
Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen. Vintage. 2010. 208p. ISBN 9780307474414. pap. $15.95. COOKING/ESSAYS
Delicious! is a thinly veiled version of the still mourned Gourmet magazine that ceased publication in 2009 while Reichl was editor, owing to, as is the case in Delicious!, declining ad sales. Colwin wrote for Gourmet and was beloved for her funny, intimate, and reassuring columns about cooking food and thinking about it. In this collection, she gathers some of her pieces for Gourmet (along with writings from other publications) into a cozy compilation that shows the kind of work Billie was a part of and the kind of people with whom she worked. Reading Colwin’s open, breezy, and confident prose is very much akin to stepping into her kitchen, where she might serve a plate of eggplant or bowl of potato salad and then invite her guests to share their own take on the recipe. For readers who want to extend the feeling of the workplace of Delicious! suggest as well one of the big magazine cookbooks such as Gourmet Today or The Bon Appétit Cookbook.
Hayes, Joanne Lamb. Grandma’s Wartime Kitchen: World War II and the Way We Cooked. St. Martin’s. 2000. 256p. ISBN 9780312253233. $27.95. COOKING
A great part of the fun of Lulu’s letters is reading about victory gardens, rations, and the inventive ways the women on the home front kept their families fed, or, in Lulu’s case, how she kept her mother supplied with lunches for her breaks in the factory. If you own this nostalgic cookbook, filled with recipes and memories of the wartime era, suggest it to readers who want to learn more about what it was like to cook with a ration book, little meat, little sugar, and little else. Alas, no recipes featuring milkweed or pumpkin leaves are featured, nor are snowball cookies, but there is a listing for green-tomato mincemeat pie. If your library does not own this volume, point interested patrons to sites such as this at the National World War II Museum, which offers a solid introduction to the food shortages of the period as well as selected images from the propaganda of the times. More historical-minded readers might also like Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.
Julie & Julia. 1 disc. color. 123 min. Sony Pictures. 2009. DVD UPC 043396292291. $14.99. BIOG/COMEDY
To get a sense of the inadequacy Billie feels and the sheer joy that comes from immersing oneself in the foodie world, watch this film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Streep plays the indomitable Julia Child, while Adams plays Julie Powell, a somewhat malcontented woman who finds something to believe in (and a way to believe in herself) by cooking all the recipes in Child’s magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Interspersed with the modern story of Powell’s cooking journey is that of Child’s time in 1950s France with her foreign service officer husband, Paul (played wonderfully by Stanley Tucci). There Child learns to cook, and the film details how she and Simone Beck wrote the cookbook that changed the landscape of the American food scene. The blend of modern and historical stories, the attention to the lavish depiction of food, and the connection between the two women (at least Powell’s connection to Child) make this a great whole collection suggestion for Reichl fans. On top of that, the film itself is a pure delight.