Ruth Reichl will be participating in a City Arts & Lectures conversation with Leah Garchik on Monday, May 19, 2014, 7:30 PM @ Nourse Theater. Click here for ticket information. See a full listing of other Bay Area appearances and book signings May 19-21, and read an excerpt from Reichl’s new book here.
Other appearances, reported in the San Jose Mercury News:
– May 19, Noon: Tea at Towne Center Books in Pleasanton (555 Main St.)
– May 19, 7:30 PM: City Arts and Lectures conversation with Leah Garcik at the Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St. in San Francisco
– May 20, 12:15 PM: Literary Luncheon at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd. in Corte Madera
– May 20, 7:00 PM: Commonwealth Club talk at 3921 Fabian Way in Palo Alto
– May 21, Noon: Luncheon appearance at Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa (401 S. A St.)
– May 21, 6:30 PM: Talk and book signing at Omnivore bookstore, 3885a Cesar Chavez Place in San Francisco
“Events at Towne Center and Omnivore are free; for ticket prices, call 415-927-0960 for Book Passage and Spinster Sisters, 415-392-4400 for City Arts and visit www.commonwealthclub.org for Palo Alto.”
The following is an excerpt from the book “Delicious!: A Novel” by Ruth Reichl. Copyright 2014 by Ruth Reichl. Reprinted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through our affiliate link at Amazon.com.
“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.
Eleven Years Later
When Jake Newberry asked me to cook for him, I froze.
“Something wrong?” He swept a strand of silver hair out of his eyes and gave me his famous cool blue stare.
“I’m not applying for a position in the test kitchen.” I tried to keep the disappointment from my voice; the job had sounded so perfect. “I thought you were looking for a new executive assistant.”
“I am.” Then he added, “Didn’t anybody tell you I ask every candidate to cook for me?”
How had I missed that?
Jake reached down and patted the big yellow dog at his feet; the dog wriggled with pleasure, and I found that oddly reassuring. “Look, Billie.” Jake offered an encouraging smile. “You seem like a good fit for Delicious! You worked on The Daily Cal. It sounds like you know your way around a kitchen. And you’re even willing to leave school to take the job. I like that; it shows how much you want it.”
I’d spent hours working on an explanation for dropping out; it had never crossed my mind that he’d consider it a plus. “You’ve said all the right things.” He looked down at the pile of manuscripts on his desk, and when he looked up again, his smile was crooked. “You Googled me, right?”
“Would you want an assistant who didn’t?”
“Good answer. But that just proves my point. I don’t find interviews all that revealing.”
Every article I’d read about Jake mentioned that he was a non–corporate guy, which was one of the reasons I’d applied for the job. Working at Delicious! sounded like joining a club, entering a little world of its own, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Needed. I’d spent hours preparing for this interview, studying Jake, chasing down every detail. Now it appeared that hadn’t been enough.
“What’s wrong with interviews?” I was playing for time. I really didn’t want to cook.
“Isn’t it obvious?” He was truly great–looking; the photographs captured his all–American looks, but they didn’t catch the humorous way his lips turned up or the watchful intelligence in his eyes. “You tell me you love the book, but, then, you’re hardly going to say you hate it.”
He’d lost me. Book? I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Ha! Another piece of the puzzle slides into place. You don’t know much about magazines, do you? In this business, magazines are always called ‘books.’ I don’t know why. What I do know is that every writer who comes for an interview is madly in love with this book. Then I ask what they’re reading, and they serve up the usual suspects: The New Yorker, and the most challenging bestseller on the current list.”
He pointed an ebony letter opener at me. “I have to admit, throwing Brillat–Savarin into the mix was a clever move on your part; nobody’s ever come up with that before.”
Not all that clever: It hadn’t taken much to find out he’d written his college honors thesis on the great French gastronome.
Jake was studying me, and I couldn’t help wondering if he’d be easier on me if I were one of the pretty girls, or at least a bit more stylish. Aunt Melba had insisted that I buy a black skirt and a white shirt, but I hadn’t bothered trying them on and the skirt was a little too short; now I tugged at it, trying to edge it closer to my knees. But it turned out Jake wasn’t concerned with the way I looked. “I’m trying to figure out if you knew I’d ask what you had for dinner last night.”
It had been a lucky guess, but if I were the editor of a food magazine, that’s a question I’d be asking. So I Googled around and discovered that Jake had a passion for Japanese food. Then I found some obscure new place in the East Village specializing in Kitakata ramen and went in for a big bowl of clear fragrant broth filled with broad, chewy noodles.
“Sounds great!” he said, when I described the tiny restaurant and the eccentric chef who ran it. “I’ve never heard about that place, and I can’t wait to try it. Thanks. The thing is . . .” He stopped for a moment to let a noisy truck go by. Delicious! occupied a grand old mansion, and on this hot September morning Jake had all the windows open. I looked around, noting what a mess the place was; there were so many stacks of manuscripts, it had been hard to find a place to sit down. “Here’s what I’ve learned about you: You do your homework. That’s good. But all it really tells me is that you’re smart and you want the job. We could talk all day and I’d still have no idea if you’re right for Delicious! But cooking’s different; it doesn’t lie. Is this a problem? Just humor me, okay.”
There was no question mark on the end of that last sentence. If I wanted to work for Jake Newberry, I was going to have to cook.
Why hadn’t I anticipated this? Because there was a problem: These days, simply thinking about cooking could bring on a panic attack.
Already I felt the clammy sweat popping out all over my body. Not now! I thought, willing myself to stand up, reminding myself to breathe. “Anticipatory panic is the worst part,” the therapist had said, and anxiety was pouring over me, making me woozy, as I followed Jake out of his office.
I tried to concentrate on the dog, who was running before us, jauntily waving his tail. In that moment I would have given anything to be him, to be so carefree. Go away! I pleaded with the panic, but now it entered me, expanding like a huge balloon, filling my body with agitation. My hands were shaking and the nausea was coming on, but Jake didn’t seem to notice. “I’m always eager to find out what people will make for me.”
“Gin—-” I began, grateful to be talking. It might help. But Jake waved me quiet.
“No, no, don’t tell me. I like to be surprised.”
I followed him up the stairs, so focused on the panic that I barely registered the graceful carved oak banisters and soft wooden floors. Concentrate on the recipe, I told myself, trying to repeat the ingredients in my head: oranges, cardamom, pepper, sour cream. The words were slightly soothing; maybe it would be okay. But then we were at the kitchen and Jake was opening the door. The scent of sugar, flour, and butter wafted toward me, and it was so familiar that I felt the blood rush from my face as the dizziness claimed me. The panic was inside, choking me, and outside too, a great wave crashing over me.
“You okay?” Jake’s hand was on my arm. I knew I’d gone white.
“Fine. I’m fine.” I put my hand out and grabbed the counter, trying to steady myself. From somewhere far away I heard Jake say, “Okay, then. This is Maggie, our executive food editor. She’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need.” Then he was gone.
All I wanted was to lie down on the cool floor, but I glanced up, trying to focus on the woman in front of me. She was old and painfully thin, with a straight nose and short black hair that looked as if she’d chopped it off with a carving knife. She glared at me and muttered, just loud enough for me to hear, “Why’s Jake wasting my time? He’ll never hire her.”
Her unexpected meanness was like an electric shock, and it jerked me backward, jolting me into the moment. The effect was so immediate and so strong that the dizziness receded. It was like a miracle; I almost laughed. What was the worst thing that could happen? I’d faint? Scream? Make some kind of fool of myself? I straightened up, looked her in the eye, told her I’d need ginger, eggs, and oranges, and began ticking off the spices. She silently pointed to the refrigerator, the cupboard, the spice cabinet—-staccato little jerks, as if she begrudged me every motion. The blood began to return to my head, and now I could feel the sweat drip down my face. I swiped at it with a paper towel when Maggie’s back was turned. Then I opened the refrigerator and reached in, grateful for the rush of cold as I grabbed the eggs. The nausea was still there, but it was bearable now, and the departing panic had left relief in its wake, so strong it felt almost like elation. I’d have a terrible headache later on, but I was going to get through this.
Maggie stomped off to the next counter, where a tall, older cook was rolling out pasta. The room was crowded—-at least eight other cooks were in there—-and the scent of baking cakes, roasting meats, and caramelizing onions filled the air. I gathered my ingredients and began to relax into the rhythm of the kitchen, slowly slipping into that flow where I was all alone. I grated orange peel, concentrating on the way the cool oil felt on my fingertips. I picked up a knob of ginger, losing myself to the rain–forest fragrance as I slowly shredded it with my knife. The scents swirled around me: cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, and clove.
Captured by the cooking, I picked up the pace, my spoon ringing against the bowl, my body vibrating to the familiar moves. I was so into sifting flour, greasing pans, and pouring batter that I didn’t even realize I was talking as the cake went in the oven.
“ ‘No earthquakes now’?” Maggie’s voice was belligerent. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It’s a California thing.”
She sniffed derisively and stuck out her sharp chin. She seemed to be searching for a cutting remark when someone shouted, “Taste!”
The word reverberated through the room, galvanizing the cooks. They all dropped what they were doing and went charging toward the sound, forks held out before them, like knights heading into a joust. They descended on a roast one of the cooks had just pulled from the oven, each jockeying for the first forkful. There was a moment of silence as they stood chewing, then a sudden rush of words as they deconstructed the dish.
“Needs more salt.”
“Reminds me of that Paula Wolfert dish, the one with warka.”
“Why’d you use achiote?”
Ten minutes later, they were still talking. I opened my oven door, and as the carnival scent of gingerbread came spilling out, they all looked toward me before resuming the conversation.
I turned the cake out of the pan and let it cool for a few minutes. I had just finished glazing it when Maggie stalked over. “How long do you let it cool?”
“I like to eat it while it’s still a little warm.”
“Taste!” she bellowed. I jumped back as the outstretched forks came rushing toward me.
“It smells incredible,” said one of the cooks.
Maggie, a practiced jouster, shoved his fork aside. “I’ll take the first bite,” she said, lopping off a chunk. She put it in her mouth and her lips twisted, as if she’d swallowed a mouthful of vinegar. For a minute I thought she hated it. But then she said, reluctantly, “Oh, God, this is fantastic. Jake’s going to love it.”
Ruth Reichl began writing about food in 1972, when she published Mmmmm: A Feastiary. As co-owner and cook of the collective restaurant The Swallow from 1974 to 1977, she played a part in the culinary revolution that took place in Berkeley, California. Her career in journalism cemented her reputation as a leading figure in the worlds of food and media, as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and as Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine for ten years until its closing in 2009. Reichl is the author of several memoirs including Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires. Her new novel, Delicious!, marks her fiction debut.