Secrets of the Tsil Cafe: A Novel with Recipes

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Overview

A bittersweet and often funny coming-of-age story set in a cross-cultural and extended family that lives between two kitchens-one traditional, the other New World.

Weston Hingler's crib was in the kitchen of BuenAppeTito, his mother's catering service. There, he learned to read while tasting all the flavors of his mother's culinary alphabet.

But before he was allowed to ...
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Overview

A bittersweet and often funny coming-of-age story set in a cross-cultural and extended family that lives between two kitchens-one traditional, the other New World.

Weston Hingler's crib was in the kitchen of BuenAppeTito, his mother's catering service. There, he learned to read while tasting all the flavors of his mother's culinary alphabet.

But before he was allowed to enter the Tsil Café, he had to pass his father's taste tests. Anchovies. Haba–ero chiles. Chipotle peppers. Food to purge body and soul. Food his loving but sometimes volatile father uses as a measure of family, friends, and enemies.

Caught between these two kitchens, Weston quickly learns that he's also trapped by his wayward parents' secrets and histories, infidelities and gaping needs, as well as by the Café customers and employees who are privy to his growing up.

Weston chooses his escapes intuitively, but he can't get away. In this layered and savory novel, food is the reflection of life's shifting flavors, and readers will be drawn to the delicious package in which Averill delivers his story-complete with recipes. But ultimately they'll attach to Weston's complicated family, and when Averill serves us their feasts of reconciliation, readers will want to raise a toast.

Author Biography: Thomas Fox Averill has published two story collections, Passes at the Moon and Seeing Mona Naked. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an O. Henry Award winner, Averill is writer-in-residence and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

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Editorial Reviews

Bookpage
Averill..blends savory, but spicy recipes into this novel of a hot-blooded family with two battling kitchens.
Calgary Herald
Hot stuff: it is completely satisfying food fiction.
Lawrence Journal-World
.. a flavorful concoction of a story.
New Age Magazine
a coming-of-age story that delves—with rich, succulent detail—into the lore of New World and Old World cooking..Recipes look..mouthwatering.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
..delicious, fully drawn.
Topeka Capital-Journal
.. a spicy coming-of-age story combined with mouth-watering recipes for New World cuisine.
Wichita Eagle
A tour de force of the palette.
Publishers Weekly
A man's perspective is rare in the current crush of culinary-inspired fiction, but in this first novel based around hotter-than-hot peppers, it's macho to wield a saucepan. Narrator Wes Hingler, son of dueling chefs, is a terrific kitchen guide: lusty, culturally hip, erudite but without intellectual pretense, unsentimental. Wes's father, Robert, is the owner of the Tsil Cafe, serving New Mexican food in Kansas City, Mo.; his mother, Maria Tito Hingler, runs Buen AppeTito catering. Growing up in their two kitchens, Wes embodies their conflicts and collusions: New World versus Old World ingredients, heat and warmth. He must become himself as well as their child, and the book recounts his tortuous, triumphant journey to his own restaurant, Weston's One-World Cafe. Tsil (pronounced like the first syllable in chili, but with a hiss) is the Hopi name for a chili pepper come to life, and nearly all the recipes gathered in the book include a chili or two in the ingredient list. Those who prefer their meals bland are forewarned, as should be vegetarians and pet owners: at the culminating feast, soup with llama blood is served. Sometimes Wes's extended family seems a dish with a confusing number of spices. But O. Henry Award-winning short story writer Averill uses the issue of roots to make a fine point about the influence of many cooks on even a signature dish. Readable if not readily cookable, Tsil Cafe will heat up the summer. Agent, Stephanie von Hirschberg. National publicity. (July) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Averill's debut provides a harmless enough occasion for the author to meditate philosophically on the sensual analogies between cooking, food, life and love. At least Averill has interesting things to say about food and cooking. Among the main attractions here are the delicious-sounding recipes, complete with essays on the ingredients, for the "New World" cuisine (prepared exclusively from foods found in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus) of Robert Hingler's Tsil Café in Kansas City, Missouri. Upstairs from the restaurant, Hingler's wife Maria operates a catering business focused on "Old World," primarily Mediterranean cuisine. Into this mix is born their son Wes, the narrator, who chronicles the usual restaurateurs' frustrations, from ignorant suppliers and unreliable employees to hostile reviewers, as well his own tendency to burn his hands on scalding-hot pans. Meanwhile, there are also adulterous affairs for husband and wife. Forced to endure the hardship of seeing his parents fight, Wes arrives at the deep conclusion that both of them are imperfect and carry childhood traumas. His parents make up—their love is stronger, fresher, better, but scarred—and Wes realizes he's got to make his own meal in life, with his own ingredients and his own dishes and . . . you get the picture. He has sex, goes to college, and works in another restaurant, all crucible experiences related in no particular order of significance. An unintentionally amusing moment occurs during Robert's blowout 50th-birthday meal, a grand affair including roast guinea pig, dog tamales, and llama's blood, when Maria's visiting grandmother dies in the restaurant's basement as the meal is aboutto begin. Dinner is served anyway, and Maria pops downstairs to be with the body "for a brief vigil between courses." Occasionally Wes strikes a more-native-than-thou attitude, as when he describes Thanksgiving as "the Anglo ritual that consists of gorging the gut instead of communication with ancestors and gods." A pretty good cookbook struggling to get out of a bland novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425185339
  • Publisher: Blue Hen Trade
  • Publication date: 6/28/2002
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Read an Excerpt

I.
At The Table, In The Kitchen
Achiote (seed of the tropical American annatto tree):
This tiny seed is used mostly for its deep yellow and orange coloring, enhancing sauces and enriching flavor.

My father, Robert Hingler, ground the small seeds and heated them in corn oil, until their pungency and color burst, and the pan turned yellow, then orange. The hearty smell of achiote, sharp, crisp, filled his kitchen. It was a sunrise, a sunset. The world, always turning, is a seed; its many colors light our days. I, Weston Tito Hingler, started the world as a seed, too, in the kitchens of my parents.
My mother, Maria Tito Hingler, made her kitchen both the family kitchen and the center of Buen AppeTito, her catering business. She had few recipes. When she took a job, she sat down with whoever hired her. "After twenty minutes," she always said, "I know exactly what will please someone. I adapt my cooking to them—spicy, bland, exotic, ordinary, sweet, salty. It's their party."
Though she began her catering with the Italian food of her girlhood, she could cook anything: from a huge, cheesy lasagna to caviar-stuffed ravioli; from spaghetti and meatballs to shrimp-paste pasta with capered cream sauce; from chocolate cake to her famous torte-tart, a pastry with the lightest filling imaginable. She didn't care which she made: she pleased her customers, not herself; their pleasure was hers.
My father? He had his recipes, and he stuck to them, and the customer was expected to adapt to his ingredients, to his cooking style, to his menu. The same with me. He made me into a son of the Tsil Café: Ingredients of the New World Cooked New Mexico Style.
And what is tsil? In their rituals, the Hopi Indians of the Southwest dress as their mythical ancestors. With the proper headdress, mask, and body paint, they become the elements, or sacred foods, or animals, or another gift from their gods. In some rituals they dance, in others they run. The tsil is their name for that sacred food, the chile pepper, come to life with a red pepper headdress and a cylindrical mask the color of corn. My father always pronounced it like the first syllable of chile, but with a hissing t at the beginning. When a Hopi represents the tsil, he carries a yucca stick in one hand, red chiles in the other, and challenges all to a foot race. Any runner the tsil overtakes in a race has his mouth quickly stuffed with hot peppers. Besides costuming for ritual, the Hopi also represent their ancestors and their gods' gifts through the carving of dolls, called kachinas. A tsil kachina—complete with headdress and chile pepper in hand—stood guard over my father's kitchen: the perfect totem for my father, who loved spice and heat, and gladly stuffed peppers into the mouths of son, wife, family, and customer.
So, I grew up with the Old World foods of my mother, the New World foods of my father. I was fed by one parent, stuffed by another. I was marked by both, nurtured by both.


My crib, and then my bed, were in my mother's kitchen, where she spent most of her time. Sunshine streamed into her southern windows and onto her plants, pots, pans, bottles, and jars. And on her cookbooks, shelves of them. The bottom shelf, though, was mine. By the time I was three, I had learned that my mother would stop almost anything if I asked her to read me a book. I would run to that bottom shelf and pull out Winnie the Pooh, and we would read the adventures of Robin, Pooh, Piglet, and the rest. My mother was a tall woman and I loved jumping into her lap, being engulfed by her arms, looking at the pictures, and the words. Her long braid was often curled around her shoulder, and I sometimes held it, pretending it was Eeyore's tail.
One day, when we were reading Pooh, my mother pointed to the word honey. "This is a word, Wes," she said. "It says honey." She stood up, leaving me to sit on the kitchen chair. "But it isn't honey. It's only a word. You know what honey really is, don't you?" She took down her honey jar and brought two spoons. "Let's taste this word," she said. She dipped a spoon in the honey and brought it out, twirling it in the sunlight. The honey glowed. She put it in my mouth, where it was warm and golden and sweet, where it coated my tongue and melted into my throat.
"Mothers make milk for their babies," said my mother. "I made milk for you." She twirled another spoonful of honey in the air and put it in her mouth. "And bees make honey for their babies, Wes. Those are the only two natural foods, made only to be eaten. They're not anything else—not seeds, not flowers, not fruits, not leaves, not roots. They're food, and food alone."

"I want some milk," I said. And we drank.
"Milk and honey," she said. "When you're a baby, you live in the land of milk and honey."
"Can we taste other words?" I asked.
From then on, when we read, we tasted words. With Mother Goose we had a "little nutmeg" and a "golden pear." We ate Peter Piper's "pickled peppers" from my mother's jars of pepperoncinis and cherry peppers. Once, we were "pumpkin eaters" like Peter, Peter. Like Jack Horner, we put "plums on our thumbs" and said I was a "good boy." We even ate lamb, though my mother insisted it was not Mary's "little lamb." We stopped short of "four and twenty blackbirds."
In my mother's and then my father's kitchen, I learned my letters. My blocks were brightly painted with the letters of the alphabet. Next to C my father placed a cayenne. The Y was not for yellow, but for yucca cactus. I learned my colors from the orange of pumpkins, the blue of native corn. And my shapes? Tortillas were round, raviolis square, cob corn cylindrical. In my kitchen primer, I learned a catechism from Anchovy to Zucchini, tasting all the way through.
My parents' stories were about food. When I was five, in my afternoon bath—that's when my parents could supervise me before they busied themselves in their kitchens—my father showed me how Kansas City water drains in a counterclockwise funnel. He described living on a Navy cruiser, not hard to imagine because he was fond of khaki pants and T-shirts, his kitchen uniform. His thick hair was still cut in a military crew. His arms were long and lean, but muscled, as though he did push-ups as part of his training.
"Below the equator water drains clockwise." Once, he told me, cooking for the ship, he pulled the plug of a sink. The water whirled counterclockwise. Suddenly, the funnel slowed, then stopped. When the water drained again, it slowly twirled clockwise. "Imagine your bath water doing that right now," he said. "You're cooking, and you're crossing the equator." After my bath, my father dried me, dressed me, and took me to his kitchen.
I watched him make tamales. The masa dough had been resting in the refrigerator, and he brought it to the counter where he'd sat me down. Corn husks soaked in a huge pot. The filling—cactus strips and kernels of corn in a chile-tomato sauce—had been ready since morning. He took a husk from the water, threw a small ball of dough onto it, pressed it down with another husk until it made a thin square, spooned on some filling, rolled the husk so the dough enclosed the filling, and wrapped until the whole thing was a thin tube. Last, he folded down the top of the husk to seal the tamal.
While he worked, he talked. About the time he'd bought an old car and traveled the back roads, looking for the unusual: the taqueria with beef tongue tacos, the honey-piñon candies, the Indian reservations where they still ate dogs. "The mouth can talk," he said, "but tasting is first. Talk is just the translation." He put some cactus filling in my mouth.
"It's spicy," I said.
"Don't talk, taste," he said.
I let the chile heat subside, and tasted the other flavors and textures, the hearty tomato, the sweet corn, the crunch of prickly pear cactus. "It's not spicy," I said.
"That's my boy," he said. "When you taste, things just are what they are."
"What's the name of the hot?" I asked.
"Chipotle," he said. He went to a jar in his kitchen and brought me a dark, shriveled pepper the size of my little finger. "Smell it," he said.
"Smoke," I said.
"That's right. It's a smoked, dried, red jalapeño. Chipotle."
"Chipotle," I said. "It tastes good."
By the time I went to school, I was my parents' child in my food tastes. The first year of grade school, they brought me home for lunch. By second grade, I wanted to stay at school. Other kids ate in the lunchroom, food they'd brought from home, and then they had more time to swing and slide and play four-square and tetherball.
My father sent me with two cactus tamales for lunch, and some black and blue berries with chocolate sauce in a little cup with a lid. I sat in the lunchroom, unwrapping corn husks to the stares of my classmates. Everyone around me had unwrapped white bread with peanut butter and jelly or bologna inside. They had carrots, or apple slices. I picked some masa dough off one of the corn husks.
"What is that?" a kid asked me.
"A tamal," I said.
"You don't eat that paper stuff?" he asked.
"It's a corn husk," I said. "Like what covers corn on the cob."
"I like corn on the cob," the boy said.
"Me, too," I said.
"But I don't like that," he said. "I hate that." He held his nose in horror.
On the playground, after lunch, a group of older boys surrounded me. "Hot tamale, hot tamale," they chanted. "Mexican Wes, Mexican Wes."
"Tamales are good," I said. I hadn't spent enough time with other children to fear a group of them.

"They're made with dog food," said a boy.
"Dog food, dog food," the boys chanted. One of them poked me in the chest, and down I went.
I managed to stand up. "It's not dog food," I yelled. "It's dog."
The boys began to close in.
"My dad makes tamales out of dogs," I yelled. "He'll catch yours someday, and I'll eat it."
The boys punched, kicked, and scratched until I curled into a lifeless ball. When a teacher blew her whistle, the boys scattered. I slowly uncurled and stood up. Bits of gravel stuck to my knees.
The school nurse was Miss McGwinn. Her office smelled of bleach. The kids joked that the smell was embalming fluid, and once you went in, you never came out. Miss McGwinn had a pug nose, and the boys all called her Miss McGwinnie Pig. I showed her my scraped knees, the small cuts on my lip and above my eye.
"Let's wash you up," she said. Miss McGwinn stuck my head into a plugged sink and turned on frigid water. The cold, she said, would help stop the bleeding. My blood dripped and dispersed, a little cloud, like when a drop of buffalo blood hit water in the kitchen sink of my father's Tsil Café.
"They're mean old bullies," I said as Miss McGwinn put a towel to my head.
"What did they do?"
"They called my tamal dog food," I said.
"And you?"
"I told them it was made from dog. My father ate a dog tamal once." "You must mean tamale," said Miss McGwinn. "It's called a tamale."
"It's a tamal," I said, though suddenly I wasn't certain.
"Tamale," said Miss McGwinn. She pulled the plug of the sink.
I watched the water form its little funnel. "My father says water drains the opposite way on the other side of the equator. He saw it," I said, "when he was cooking in the Navy. The funnel goes like this." I spun my finger clockwise.
Miss McGwinn snuffed, then sighed. She went to the cabinet for a bandage. "I don't care what your father eats," she said, "or what he tells you about water. You should just get along. You don't need to make up stories about your food. You don't need to impress anyone. That's the quick way to trouble."
"I'm not making up stories," I said.
"Fine," said Miss McGwinn. "I'll call your parents. Do you want to talk to the principal, and report the boys who hit you?"
"No." I was that smart, at least.
"You're not much hurt anyway," said Miss McGwinn.
When I returned home, my parents rushed to examine my face and knees. "The nurse called," said my mother.
"They really let you have it, didn't they?" asked my father.
I began to cry.
"What is it?" asked my mother.
"Miss McGwinn said it was tamale, not tamal," I sputtered between sobs. "We call her McGwinnie Pig." I laughed, even though I'd never called her that.
"Don't use names," said my father.

"The boys called me names," I said. "Mexican Wes."
"They're stupid," he said.
"Let's not call names." My mother held me and I began to cry all over again. That night, after dinner in my mother's kitchen, I went to the kitchen of the Tsil Café to say good night to my father. "I'm sorry you had a tough day," he said. "Tomorrow will be better."
Pablito, my father's greeter and bartender, admired my battle wounds. He took my fingers in his hands and traced three small ridges in his light brown skin, two along his eyebrows and one above his lip. "Mis heridas," he said. "They used to hit, and hit, and hit me."
Our waitress, Cocoa, came over to touch my bandages. "My little man," she said.
When I went to bed, I didn't feel brave. I felt tired, and sore, and lonely. I knew the other kids hated me because I was different. And the reason I was different? My parents, of course.
The next day, my father handed me a sack lunch. Inside was a turkey steak, some leftover quinoa, pineapple slices baked the night before in a cashew coating, and more black and blue berries*. I burst some of the berries against my face, rubbing them into my sores to make
*Black and Blue Berry (New World, North American fruit):
A New Jersey botanist, Frederick Covine, developed a fat, nearly seedless blueberry in 1910. Before that, blueberries were about as popular as chokecherries and other native berries—more coveted by birds than humans. Blackberries, on brambly bushes, have been actively cultivated from the early 1800s and are used most often in pies, puddings, jellies, syrups, and brandy. Both mix well with other New World flavors—vanilla, chocolate, mild chiles, and other berries. The two are those rare colors for foods: deep black and true blue.
What looked like impressive bruises. I dumped the lunch into the alley dumpster. Being hungry would be better than being teased.
Miss McGwinn was the proctor in the lunchroom that day. She asked why I wasn't eating. "We ran out of dog," I told her.

—Reprinted from The Secrets of the Tsil Caf: A Novel With Recipes by Fox, Thomas Averill by permission of Blue Hen, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Susann Cokal. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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Reading Group Guide

DISCUSSIONQUES: Question: Why is food such an apt metaphor for love and conflict? What makes food literature as a whole work?

Question:Is food literature a trend?

Question: How does weaving recipes into the novel affect the telling? When authors introduce recipes, art, and other non-narrative elements into text, does this enhance the reading experience?

Question: Although place and geography are key to this novel, particular cities and places are described only in broad strokes. Why do you think the author makes this choice? What terrain matters most in this novel?

Question: Is Wes always likeable? Does liking characters matter to the reading experience? Is "connecting" with characters the mot important part of the reading experience? Do you believe this interest in "connecting" to characters in general reflects a change in reading habits?

Question: How does Averill play with metaphor in this novel? What does his focus on the "New World" achieve?

Question: In what ways is this novel addressing political and cultural issues?

Question: A theme in this book is "challenge." For instance, Averill obviously challenges our food tastes. In what ways does he challenge concepts of family?

Question: In the end of the novel, memory is experienced as a taste-an appropriate closing to the novel. In what others ways does the ending bring the various themes and motifs full circle?

Question: Averill's use of humor is integral, but subtle. Does he use it like cooks use flavorings? Is his whole approach to the novel-the way he wrote the book-almost a recipe in itself? Does the telling advance the story as much as the plot?

Question: There are secrets to the recipes and even deeper secrets within the family. How do the mysteries of food and family combine to shape and affect Weston's childhood and his life as a whole?

From the Author: In the middle of writing Secrets of the Tsil Café, I celebrated my 50th birthday. Knowing that my restaurateur, Robert Hingler, would make his 50th an extravagant experiment in culinary pleasure and odd appetite, my agent suggested I do something similar for myself. I did. My self-indulgence was to pretend Hingler's Tsil Café was catering my birthday dinner. I invited nearly twenty friends and family members to a dinner selected from that menu. My wife thought it odd that I wanted to spend my birthday cooking a five-course dinner for twenty, but I called it a "gift" to both myself and my work-in-progress novel.

Our invitation included the dinner menu: Black Bean & Gooseberry Enchiladas and Chips with Sweet Habanero Salsa for appetizers; then Potato and Green Chile Soup; then the salad course, Watercress with Roasted Sunflower Dressing; and finally the main dish--Buffalo Tongue with Chipotle Barbecue Sauce--and sides, Quinoa and Squash. My wife catered the dessert, a non-Tsil Lemon Meringue Pie. I organized, shopped, cooked happily for an entire day, and we all ate well.

By putting myself in Hingler's shoes for a day, I learned something of exotic appetites. I received both compliments and occasional silence depending on the tastes of my guests. Most of all I had the best gift this novelist could receive: a deeper well for writing Secrets of the Tsil Café.

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