Tom Averill with Laura Lorsen, July 18, 2001
Laura: For the last twelve years, Topeka writer Thomas Fox Averill has been writing for KANU radio as the curmudgeonly commentator William Jennings Bryan Oleander, an opinionated old-timer observing the world from the fictitious community of Here, Kansas. Averill is a professor of English and the writer in residence at Washburn University. He's just published a book, Secrets of the Tsil Café, a novel with recipes. It's a coming-of-age story about a boy who's the child of two cooks, each with a distinct traditional style. Tom recently visited KANU and talked about how he creates his wildly different characters and their unique voices and how he comes to inhabit the world of Mr. Oleander.
Tom: That character's almost a state of mind. So inhabiting that character is almost like reading the paper or listening to the news and just thinking about it from a different angle, from a different space, from a different voice. I always know I have an Oleander commentary when, not Tom Averill reacts a certain way to something, but when it connects with my idea of what Mr. Oleander is, and what his voice can say. There are many things that I would like to say that Mr. Oleander would never say, and there are many things that Mr. Oleander can say that Tom Averill cannot say.
Laura: Let's talk about this book. Not giving too much away, but let's have you tell us what exactly is going on in this book.
Tom: It's a book about a young man, Wes Hingler, who grows up pulled between two intense parents in two intense kitchens. His father, originally from Santa Fe, has the Tsil Café in Kansas City, where he's gone to join Wes' mother after a courtship centered on food. She's originally from St. Louis, the Italian Hill District of St. Louis, and so she comes out of that tradition, cooking in an Old World sort of way. Robert Hingler, the father, cooks only with ingredients that were indigenous to the Western Hemisphere before Columbus, and he's very strict about this.
Laura: So what would some of those be?
Tom: Those would be, think Thanksgiving. That's how I got started with the whole thing. The one truly American holiday, and what do we eat? We eat all those things that Europeans had no idea about - turkey, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, green beans, corn. All of these things were unknown to the rest of the world until Columbus and the contact. And we can add all those chiles that Robert Hingler loves so much.
Laura: Reading though this book, the intense heat of the chile pepper is almost a device that drives the plot periodically.
Tom: He calls his place the Tsil Café after the Hopi kachina, which is dressed with a corn cob head, and carries a yucca stick, and runs in ritual races every year in the Hopi culture. The Tsil kachina, when it overtakes you in a race, actually is allowed to stuff hot peppers in your mouth, and so Robert Hingler uses that as his totem for the restaurant because he loves to stuff hot peppers in people's mouths. Wes Hingler says it one time, "My father served his food with a lot of heat, and my mother served her food with a lot of warmth," and that's the difference between the two parents. But it's really a coming of age book, it's about first tastes, but it's a novel of education, how do we become who we become.
Laura: It really gives you a sense of the bond between mother and son and of the bond between mother and son and food, and family and food.
Tom: Yes, it's a real universal experience. We all remember those first tastes of both good food and bad food, and things we like, and I think we mark some of our maturity with what we will eat.
Laura: Let's talk about the larger themes in this book. I was extremely drawn by, having been familiar with your work as William Jennings Bryan Oleander, and looking at this book, where you have a very centralized family unit that's the core of this book, much as Oleander's relationship with Iola Humbolt and their Kansas life is the core of those stories. You have the father and mother, representing Old World cooking and New World cooking, representing tradition, and it is through their interaction and through their son that they come into the present, this melding of tradition with the now. I see that a lot in Oleander's character as well, that we have the tradition of the old Kansas reacting to the things that happen in the here and now, and because I see this in both of your characters that we know here at KANU, what is your interest in tradition, how did this come about?
Tom: I was interested in these two very different food traditions and the potential conflicts between them. The narrowness, particularly of the father, gets him into trouble, you know. He needs to learn to let go a little, to adjust a little bit to the world. He has a lot to offer in terms of the traditions that he creates, to Kansas City as a food place, which is where his restaurant of course is, an imaginary restaurant on 39th Street. I wish it were there, I'd go there and eat. And of course she has much to offer too, but unless they can reach people with it then they can't grow either. Wes ends up sort of mediating between the two. He's the one ingredient they have in common, he's the one thing that they both love beyond everything else, and Wes sees the best of his father and the best of his mother. He puts all those things together for himself to become who he is. And I think that's really the challenge that all of us face, that we all come out of these certain traditions and, like in Kansas, with the Oleander character, we all come out of this Kansas tradition, of Bleeding Kansas, of Populist Kansas, an agricultural tradition, whatever it is, and yet we all live in a contemporary world. And negotiating successfully, not just abandoning the past, but negotiating successfully between the past and the present is really the challenge of remaining vital. And growing up.
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