Secrets of the Tsil Cafe: A Novel with Recipesby Thomas Fox Averill
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.
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.
- Blue Hen
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.34(h) x 1.30(d)
- Age Range:
- 14 Years
Read an Excerpt
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 themspicy, 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 kachinacomplete with headdress and chile pepper in handstood 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 elsenot 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 baththat's when my parents could supervise me before they busied themselves in their kitchensmy 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 fillingcactus strips and kernels of corn in a chile-tomato saucehad 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.
"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 berriesmore 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 flavorsvanilla, 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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This novel is a wonderful story told from the point of view of Weston Hingler. Wes comes from two Mexican heritage parents with magnificent taste in many different types of food. Wes grows up in one old fashioned restaurant owned by his mother, Maria, and one new world restaurant by his father, Roberto. Throughout his life, Wes learns the struggles of loss, betrayal, love, and suffering. Even as cooking food as a young child, he had injuries that only helped him throughout his teenage years. He develops many enemies along the way, many which came by his parents food in the restaurants. When Wes was a teenager, his parents betray one another and he doesn't quite understand why. Although the use of the Mexican language is frequent, the story is an easy read with many new world and old fashioned recipes. Most recipes that the family make in the novel are printed in the footnotes. This coming of age story is suggested to be recommended for anyone over the age of thirteen, mainly because of the excessive vocabulary used, and the events that happen throughout the story. But anyone that reads this amazing story is sure to enjoy it, be hungry, and leave their mouth watering.
This book is rich, lushious and just as spicy as the cafe it takes place in. Through the eyes of Wes, the son of Maria and Roberto Hingler, cooks and food rivals from different worlds, the delicious story developes as he grows up. Food is metaphorical for desire, fear, love, sex, pain, and growing up. You will not be able to put down this wonderful coming-of-age novel, and you may get a little hungry along the way.
This book is a great story showing how intense ones family's life may be. It is a boy telling his life story growing up in the kitchens of his mother and father. He discribes how life was and all the details of the kitchen. It is great because it also has some of the recipes they talk about.
Thomas Fox Averill's first published novel (following several collections of short fiction, two anthologies, and the O'Henry Prize selection) is a real gem which will appeal to all readers -- literature lovers, cooks, students, and teachers. A coming of age story, set in Kansas City, the novel traces Wes Hingler as he grows to know and understand himself against the backdrop of his mother's old world catering service and his father's new world 'Tsil Cafe.' Interspersed in the engaging narrative are the recipes of both worlds, recipes which are clear and educational and accessible for most cooks. Although most readers will not choose to cook with dog (when available), the ingredients will be readily available for most readers. Those who appreciate spice will revel in the recipes, but for the more delicate palates Averill shows how chile peppers can be sweet and subtle. Written with tenderness and affection while not holding back on life's realities, 'Secrets of the Tsil Cafe' will be a perfect selection for teachers in universities and secondary schools. The clear definition of two cultures, the search for identity, and the joy of life fully lived permeate this work and make it an ideal vehicle for classroom discussion and for the exploration (by students and readers) of the importance of family and cultural heritage. Although I am the author's brother and have to acknowledge the 'conflict of interest' in writing this review, I objectively see this as a great novel. I will be using 'Secrets of the Tsil Cafe' in my own AP English classes in Manchester (MA) and in my kitchen at home with my family. I recommend this novel with pride and enthusiasm.