'Tsil Cafe' concocts familiar coming-of-age story

Tom Averill mixes exotic recipes some quite unappetizing into his new novel

Adventurous eaters beware � Thomas Fox Averill's "Secrets of the Tsil Caf�" (BlueHen Books, 302 pages, $23.95) will tame even the wildest of appetites.

With a unique mixture of prose and recipes, this coming-of-age novel will either leave mouths watering or stomachs churning.

In the middle of Kansas City's trendy 39th Street, an American Southwestern "New World" restaurant and an Italian "Old World" catering business share not only the same building but also the same family. Here, amidst the distinct aromas of two different kitchens, Weston Tito Hingler creates a culinary style all his own.

Stuck in a world of PB&J; with the crusts cut off, Wes daydreams of exchanging his extravagant meals for the normalcy of white bread and bologna.

Raised in a bizarre environment of cuisines ranging from habanero chiles and prickly pear cactus to olive oil and mozzarella, Wes accepts the duality of his existence: "I lived a double life: Midwestern boy by day; by night the son of my father's eccentric Tsil Caf� and my mother's exotic Buen AppeTito." He spends half of his childhood over the stove, sampling experimental dishes and learning other tricks of his parents' trade and the other half in the harsh realities of the school cafeteria, where his gourmet sack lunches are an easy target for bullies. Immediately ostracizing him for his peculiar tastes, Wes' cruel classmates cement his place as a permanent outsider.

Wes continues to study the intricacies of cooking, and as he matures, his lessons graduate from the innocence of the kitchen to the adult world of family conflict and forbidden relationships. Working at the Tsil Caf� forces him to grow up fast. In the front of the restaurant, Wes observes as patrons gulp their teary-eye, better-throat shots of strong liquor. In the back, he spies on torrid, spiteful love affairs between employees, some of which hit too close to home.

As these relationships unfold and tensions rise, Wes ventures outside the restaurant to explore the rebellious outlets adolescence has to offer. A bit of alcohol, tobacco and sexual experimentation only lead him to more confusion and frustration.

Yearning to find his own niche in a balance between the New World and the Old World, Wes eventually heads southwest to New Mexico in a search for self-knowledge: "My father once said he cooked to create a singular experience that needed perfecting. He created and perfected his world and he lived in it. I took a different approach: I wanted to keep creating myself so I could live in any world."

Far from the world of his parents' kitchens, he attempts to find himself in the strange amalgam of past and present, Italy and America, mother and father � all served on the same plate.

It becomes clear to Wes that "Food had been everything in my family: from seduction, to individuality, to anger, to love. Now it was me." And while the food indeed dominates every aspect of Wes' life, it is the overwhelming, often suffocating presence of family that permeates each page.

Buried remnants of his parents' past slowly surface to reveal yet more affairs and familial secrets than Wes ever desires to know. The more Wes learns of his history, the more he strives to distance himself from his parents' tight grasp.

Despite Averill's aggressive force-feeding of the intertwining food-and-family theme, his subtle humor and sarcastic voice lighten the melodramatic plot. His cast of characters is as various and flavorful as the menu he provides in the preface. There's Carson Flinn, the restaurant critic, who is "Almost entirely bald, with a huge appetite and finicky manners"; Pablito, the Tsil Caf�'s host and bartender, a small hunchback whose "back was slightly humped, his neck formed so he seemed always to be looking askance, like a bird does"; and Maria Tito, Wes' great-grandmother, who could "chop, peel, cut, mince, stuff, score, braise, boil, clean, bake" as well as place Sheetrock and plane two-by-fours. Even the family dog, named When Available, carries his own inside joke to the restaurant menu: "the item Tamales gave the customer a choice of Shrimp, Turkey, Buffalo, or Dog (When Available)."

The book, however, contains a few problems. The random recipes sprinkled generously throughout the prose disrupt the flow of Averill's carefully blended comedy and drama, creating a disjointed read. Tantalizing salsas, desserts and vegetables alternate with such repulsive absurdities as guinea pig, llama blood and algae. Occasionally, the recipes coincide with the characters' actions or specific events, but they are frequently annoying and easily skipped.

Averill has obviously researched extensively to prepare his menus, but he would have been better off compiling them at the novel's finale.

Although the use of food to depict Wes' personal journey is distinctive and refreshing, Averill's novel traces this unconventional route to an unfulfilling conclusion. His search down unusual paths for unusual ingredients leads to a disappointingly predictable ending after spicy characters and anecdotes.

As in all coming-of-age stories, "Secrets of the Tsil Caf�" concludes with a moment of self-realization when Wes discovers himself through his cooking. With some influence of each parent peppering his sauces, Wes invents his own entrees, ensuring that in either world, Old or New, his cooking will reflect a special appreciation for chiles and olive oil.

Regardless of its flaws, this light summer read offers a tasty twist on an all-too-familiar tale.

� Mara Reichman is a senior majoring in English at Kansas University. She was a student in English 362 - Professional Writing: Book Reviewing this semester.


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