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Folding of Gourmet magazine catalyst for Ruth Reichl's debut novel, 'Delicious!'

The cover of Ruth Reichl

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The cover of Ruth Reichl"s novel "Delicious" is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho

TORONTO - When Gourmet magazine was shuttered after almost 70 years, editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl found an old filing cabinet that was filled with letters — mostly complaints and requests for recipes. They inspired her to write a series of fictional missives that ultimately formed the basis for her first novel "Delicious!"

"I wrote the Lulu letters in one fell swoop," said Reichl, referring to the book's 12-year-old cooking enthusiast who writes letters to chef James Beard during the Second World War. "Her voice was so real to me. I had been doing a lot of research into World War II because it's a period that interested me. I can't really explain why I did it, but I did."

After Reichl's contractual obligation to Gourmet was complete, she "went home and cooked for a year." Then her editor suggested she write a novel. Reichl decided to draw on the letters to tell the story of protagonist Billie Breslin, who leaves her family in California to move to New York for a job at food magazine Delicious!

Reichl, who grew up in Greenwich Village and helmed Gourmet for 10 years, takes the reader on Billie's food journey, from the test kitchen at the magazine to restaurants to artisanal shops. Then, when Delicious! is abruptly shut down, Billie finds Lulu's letters — which help her understand various issues in her own life.

"I had this notion of a young character, who was very much not me, finding the letters and the notion across time and space this contemporary heroine would be helped by someone who had lived a long time ago in a very different place. This notion that we never quite know where help is coming from," Reichl said during a recent trip to Toronto to promote "Delicious!"

"And then I thought she's going to be in trouble because that's what fiction is — a character in trouble who works her way out of it — and I want to put her in a really nurturing environment and I thought, 'I'll put her in a food magazine because I do think that food people tend to be very generous.'"

Reichl, who has received six James Beard awards and written the nonfiction "Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise" and "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table," knew Beard, anointed the "dean of American cooking" by the New York Times in 1954.

"I loved the challenge of having a major character in the book who never says a word. You only see him through Lulu's eyes. She's writing to him. He never writes back. He looms very large in the book," she said.

She dedicates the book to Beard's assistant, Marion Cunningham, to whom she was close. "I invented Lulu, but I think if there had been a Lulu he would have written back. He was generous to his readers and I think he would have loved this little girl."

As part of her research she took a class on foraging, which she imagined would be a natural thing to do with war rationing.

"It's fascinating how much wonderful edible stuff we're surrounded with that we just ignore all the time. ... The history of milkweed just kind of blew me away. The foraging teacher said it's edible in all its forms and I knew about it because I'd been reading about the problems with the monarch butterflies whose major food it is and I was wondering what these strange things along my driveway were.

"So I didn't have a problem going out and cooking with that floss and then I discovered that during World War II they actually did enlist schoolchildren to go out and gather the floss because they needed it to make life preservers because they couldn't get kapok anymore. It came from Japan."

When Billie arrives at the magazine for her interview, the editor asks her to cook something. Her offering is a flavourful gingerbread. Reichl initially didn't want to include the recipe because she feared it wouldn't taste as wonderful as it sounded, but her editor insisted.

"Putting a lot of fresh ginger into a cake you end up having to play with the texture a lot. So I made it over and over and over again trying to get it right."

She's working on a second novel and recently submitted a cookbook that is a diary of her life after Gourmet.

"This was like me having the time to wander around, go to farmers markets, go to Chinatown, go in and out of groceries, little Italy and talk to people, get ingredients, take them home and play with them.

"It was pretty fantastic and it was very healing. At the end of that year I grounded myself so that's really what the book's about. It's about finding joy in simple pleasures."

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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