Food Writer Ruth Reichl Cooks Up First Fiction Book, 'Delicious!'

June 11, 2014

Ruth Reichl spent 15 years covertly critiquing restaurants for The New York Times and the LA Times. She served as editor of the now defunct Gourmet Magazine, authored several memoirs and cookbooks and has six James Beard Awards under her belt. 

Now she's out with the first in a series of fiction books, titled “Delicious!” 

Read an excerpt of the first chapter of "Delicious!":

"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 earth- quakes 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?"

I didn’t.

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.

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