By Elizabeth Schultz, Professor Emerita, English Department, KU
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Recently, writings about food - cultural, historical, and literary - have proliferated. Why do you think this is? In what ways is food an apt metaphor for aspects of human experience? How does it especially apply to love, conflict, and growth? How is food associated with the sacred as well as the physical?
Averill claims that he spent more time developing the recipes for Secrets of Tsil Café than he did writing the novel. What is the function of the recipes in the novel? Are there correlations between the recipes and the narrative and between the recipes and the characters? Do recipe instructions seem to provide guides for good living? What is the impact of so many New World recipes and menus with a high heat rating or with outlandish ingredients?
How do the personalities of Robert Hingler and Maria Tito Hingler embody the foods with which they are associated? Averill notes that when Robert becomes angry, his foods become hotter. Do the personalities of Wes' parents change in the course of the novel or is Wes the only one who changes?
Carson Flinn, the restaurant reviewer, looms large in Secrets of the Tsil Café. How does his presence in the novel help to reveal other characters and their relationships? Is there a correlation between his views on writing and his views on food and food preparation? Are his (and Wes') restaurant reviews distracting or illuminating?
Wes has several mentors in the novel. What do Pablito, Juan, and Maria Standing Tall, in particular, teach him?
As a baby, Wes imbibes milk and honey in his mother's kitchen, but soon enough he is eating peppers in his father's restaurant. Does he become too peppery? Does he make any mistakes? How would you describe him at the end of the novel?
SETTING AND PLOT
While bedrooms are not as important as kitchens in this novel, several important scenes occur in them. Why does Averill focus on these two rooms in a home and not on others? Is there any connection between them?
Kansas City, as Wes' birthplace and the place to which he returns as an adult, is at the center of this novel. In what ways are other cities also important for his ripening? What does Wes learn from living in the country? Is Secrets of the Tsil Café more about America than it is about Kansas City?
What are the "secrets" in the novel? Why does Wes have to discover them in order to grow up? How do these secrets flavor the characters and their relationships in the novel? Does Averill seem to be challenging his readers with new recipes for family relationships in his novel even as he challenges them with new recipes for food?
In what ways can Robert's 50th birthday celebration be considered a climax in the novel? What surprising ingredients go into the actual celebration? What impact does Wes' grandmother's death, which occurs during the festivities, have on your understanding of the novel?
How does the conclusion, in which
life and food merge in an extended recipe, integrate the novel's various
BlueHen Reading Group Guide
Why is food such an apt metaphor for love and conflict? What makes food literature as a whole work?
Is food literature a trend?
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?
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?
Is Wes always likeable? Does liking characters matter to the reading experience? Is "connecting" with characters the most important part of the reading experience? Do you believe this interest in "connecting" to characters in general reflects a change in reading habits?
How does Averill play with metaphor in this novel? What does his focus on the "New World" achieve?
In what ways is this novel addressing political and cultural issues?
A theme in this book is "challenge." For instance, Averill obviously challenges our food tastes. In what ways does he challenge concepts of family?
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?
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?
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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