Arkon flavors new novel by food writer Ruth Reichl

May 12, 2014 

AKRON, Ohio — When Ruth Reichl went searching for a Midwestern city to set part of her new book in, she found it in Akron.

The city is home to a central character of the noted food writer’s first novel, "Delicious!," released Tuesday by Random House. The book tells the story of an employee at a New York food magazine who stumbles upon letters written more than half a century earlier by an Akron girl to James Beard, the legendary chef, food writer and TV personality.

The plot line is fictional, but the setting is not. The Akron Reichl portrays is real, right down to the street where her character lived — Lookout Avenue, on the city’s near north side.

Reichl, who was editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine for 10 years and previously restaurant critic for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, said she knew early on that she wanted to make World War II food rationing a theme of her novel. She’d come across war-era pamphlets in a used book store that dealt with food-related aspects of the civilian war effort, and she said she was captivated by that part of life on the home front.

She dreamed up a character named Lulu Swan, who first appears in the book as a 12-year-old who loves to cook and is struggling to make palatable meals for herself and her working mother with the limited foods available in 1942. She writes to Beard for advice, and the two embark on a correspondence that touches not just on food, but on prejudice, loss and the life of a spirited teenager in Akron during World War II.

Reichl said she knew Beard, who died in 1985, and knew that he was generous with correspondence. So it made sense to her that a plucky girl like Lulu would have turned to a major figure like him for help, and that he would have obliged.

Speaking by phone from her home city of New York, Reichl said she had some familiarity with Northeast Ohio even before her research pointed her to Akron. Growing up, she often came to Cleveland to visit her grandparents, Emil and Mollie Brudno — he a doctor, she a civic leader and impresaria. Her grandfather’s last job was as house physician at Wade Park Manor, and Reichl weaves into her book a mention of the grand residence hotel, now Judson Manor retirement community.

Reichl said she chose Akron because she wanted a Midwestern city that was heavily involved in wartime work.

"Akron was amazing," she said. Much of the city was involved in producing goods to aid the war effort, from synthetic rubber rafts and life preservers to machine guns and gas masks. In the book, Lulu describes her mother drawing schematics onto starched linen in her job building Corsair fighter planes at the Akron Airdock.

Reichl’s references to Akron sites are many: Strickland’s Frozen Custard, Jennings Middle School, North High, St. Anthony of Padua Church, Emidio’s Pizza, DeVitis market. She even mentions the Beacon Journal as the source of a recipe for cheese souffle.

She visited Akron twice in the course of her research — once about three years ago, when she spent a week in the area, and again a year ago.

Portraying an Italian-American neighborhood was important to her plot, she said, so she knew she wanted Lulu to live within walking distance of North Hill. She chose the Elizabeth Park Valley area after walking through the neighborhood of tree-lined streets and big front porches.

Later she found an online listing for a house for sale on Lookout Avenue and took a virtual tour. She made that house the model for Lulu’s childhood home, but she declined to specify the address because she doesn’t want gawkers bothering the current owners.

The Akron Reichl found wasn’t entirely the one she’d pictured in her research. She remembers being disappointed when she visited North High School, a sprawling structure that to her seemed more like a college campus than an urban school from the 1940s. (The school was built in 1931 but was later expanded.) North Hill wasn’t quite the vibrant Italian enclave she’d imagined, but she figures it has evolved into a more diverse place in much the same way New York’s Little Italy has.

Other sites, however, charmed her. She was particularly enthralled by St. Anthony of Padua and the story of the church’s construction by the men of North Hill. Many of them were out of work during the Great Depression, and parishioners would donate food so the workers’ wives could cook them a noontime meal each day.

The book contains an admiring description of the church’s interior and a quick a mention of two of its pastors, Fathers Marino and Trivisonno. It’s a reference to the Rev. Salvatore Marino, who in 1931 was appointed to oversee the building of the parish, and the Rev. Angelo J. Trivisonno, who succeeded Father Marino after his death in 1943 and retired as Monsignor Trivisonno in 1974.

Reichl did include one tidbit Akron readers might take exception to: One of her characters in "Delicious!" refers to the city as a small town.

She laughed when she was challenged on that.

"Nobody is more provincial than New Yorkers," she said.


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services