EEN THE WINESIt probably started with Nora Ephron, and almost certainly reached a high point with Ruth Reichl, but in the last few years the recipe-studded novel/memoir call it the kitchen-counter novel has become a virtual genre. So many of them have been bubbling up on reading lists that news of another might give even the most adventurous palate pause.
And in the case of Secrets of the Tsil CafÅ½, pause is not a bad idea, because the primary ingredient of many of the first recipes is hot chili peppers. Right off, that warns of a heavy knot of meaningful references as author Thomas Fox Averill, a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, blends savory, but spicy recipes into this novel of a hot-blooded family with two battling kitchens.
Indeed, the central metaphor of the story and even the title reference refer to the fiery ingredient. Chilis are Native American in the truest sense, as all hot or sweet peppers are derived from about six major types of capsicum that the indigenous Americans had already domesticated long before the Europeans arrived. The name Tsil comes from the god-avatar of the chili pepper in the ceremonial dances of the Hopi. Hot spices excite the soul, an underlying theme in this story of a battling family, but they also excite the body, one reason many passive contemplative sects in Asia abjure them.
The product of a cross-cultural family obsessed with food, Weston Tito begins his story by saying he was a seed in his parents' kitchens plural in both cases. Weston's mother is Italian and works the successful catering business BuenAppeTito upstairs; downstairs, his father, who is fixated on cooking only indigenous foods "Santa Fe style" (they live in Kansas City), runs the Tsil Cafe, a restaurant as iconoclastic as it is tear-inducingly spicy. Wes' crib and later his cot are literally in his mother's kitchen (in the cabinets, for a while), and she teaches him her "vocabulary," the names of foods, byletting him taste them like Annie Sullivan pouring water over Helen Keller's hands. His father refuses him entry into his own obsessive domain, almost a holy order, until he can claim to enjoy such un-childlike flavors as habanero and anchovy. After that, like a knight's apprentice, he is allowed to help slice and chop ingredients carry his own sword, in effect.
One of the points of contention between Wes' hot-blooded parents is the local restaurant critic, an old admirer of his mother's (and as a critic myself, I have to say Averill's early enunciation of the critic's sometimes pompous philosophy and his fictional reviews made me wince). Nevertheless, the critic, who acts first as a teeter-totter between the two adults, ultimately becomes a sort of bridge, giving Wes his first opportunity to critique to see the food of both parents objectively and start to develop his own concept of food.
Over the years, Wes absorbs a rich stew of influences and emotions from his mixed-ethnic family, along with the various Mexican employees of the cafe who serve as surrogate relatives and even a Native American graduate student who takes him foraging for cactus and cattails and invites him to a corn dance. Ultimately, he will even marry the critic's female successor.
So pervasive is food in this coming-of-age novel that the recipes become a reflection of life's shifting flavors in Averill's kitchen novel. The almost magic-realism intensity of the flavor descriptions and the author's habit of dropping in dictionary definitions of various terms such as "turkey," "mescal" and "maple" re-emphasizes the native quality of the ingredients. The narrator's entire life is lived in the study, anecdotal and later academic, of foods; ultimately he will become a chef as well, melding his parents' Old World and New World cuisines into a One-World cuisine.
The ideal pairing: spicy chilis with cool ChardonnayEven when I was mentally trying to prepare the hottest recipes from the book (and while some seem excessive, they are clearly workable), I could imagine starting off by myself in the kitchen with a chilly, acidic white wine. While I'm not usually a Chardonnay fan, at least not those oaky enough to drive a stake through a vampire's heart, I'm much taken with the bargain of the summer: the Santa Julia Vineyards 2000 Chardonnay from the Argentine Mendoza. Moderately light, with easy citrus flavors, crisp apple peel, Japanese apple-pear and just a little burnt sugar, it's one of the most attractive and modestly swaggery $7 wines I've had in a long time. I'm not sure how it would work with the stuffed prunes, but many of the salsas would be proud of the match.
Eve Zibart is the restaurant critic for The Washington Post's weekend section. This column reflects her dual interest in wine and travel.