I’m Tom Averill, author of the culinary novel Secrets of the Tsil Café, and a “foodie” in my kitchen and in my library. My book, published in 2001, came from years of research, starting in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage. I wasn’t on the Columbus bandwagon, given the European decimation of the New World: the killing and enslavement of people, the pilfering of gold and silver, the outlawing of languages and religions, even the environmental damage done.
But one thing I could celebrate was the discovery of the foods indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. Think of all that the Europeans had not known, from the exotics (think chocolate and vanilla), to the staples (tomatoes, potatoes). Thanksgiving is one food holiday that highlights the New World larder: turkey, potatoes, cranberries, green beans, corn, pecans, and pumpkins. I give thanks for those, along with peppers, lima beans, wild rice, buffalo, quinoa, avocados, and so much more.
I decided, during my research, to prepare foods using only indigenous Western Hemisphere, New World foods, and to talk about the contribution made to world cuisine. I even cooked buffalo chili for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, with buffalo, tomatoes, pinto beans, corn, and chilis. Our dessert was the totally New World Peanut M & Ms. From there, I tried some more exotic meals: buffalo tongue with chipotle tomato sauce; black bean/gooseberry enchiladas; cactus/green chili tamales; turkey breast marinated in vanilla and sage. I entertained enough that someone told me I should start a restaurant.
That was the idea that prompted my novel, Secrets of the Tsil Café, “tsil” being the Hopi word for the chili. I certainly would never take on the work of a restaurant, but I could create one in a novel, and have my main character grow up with a father who cooked New World foods, New Mexico style. My novel included 26 recipes of my own invention, and my highest compliment was also my lowest: a New York Times food critic wrote that the recipes “Seem to be the best efforts of a college professor.” Exactly. I am a college professor! But the critic loved my green sauce, a combination of tomatillos, toasted pumpkin seeds, and jalapeno peppers that I still make today.
My character Weston Hingler created the sauce as his first recipe, when he himself was still “green” in the kitchen. I enjoyed playing with the rich colors, and rich associations, with food, and my novel includes footnotes about food. I thought of Wes’ intense father as a chili pepper, always testing taste buds. I thought of Wes, who is growing up in both his father’s fiery café and his mother’s Italian catering business, as the tomato, that go between fruit/vegetable that can be cooked or eaten raw, can be ketchup or salsa, juicy or dried. Food is always metaphor, describing people (from “honey bun” to salty dog”), and dispositions (“bitter” to “sweet”), and even occupations (the actor who is a “ham” and the policeman who is a “pig”). Such is the rich vein mined by those of us working in the food writing genre.
I’m Tom Averill of Topeka, Kansas. This is Food Friday and you’ll find recipes and stories by clicking Radio Readers Book Club under the Features menu at HPPR.org.
Here's a new way to have Turkey and mashed potatoes.
One teaspoon vanilla
Fourth cup sage vinegar (add four leaves of prairie sage to white vinegar and let soak for several days)
One teaspoon mild chile powder
One teaspoon ground achiote seed
Fourth cup peanut oil
Turkey breasts and thighs
Make a marinade of first five ingredients. Rub onto turkey breasts and thighs, on and under skin, several hours before roasting in a 325-degree oven. Put marinade in bottom of pan, and cook for one and a half hours covered, a half-hour uncovered, to brown up skin. Baste with marinade and turkey juices several times during cooking. Carve turkey and serve with juices as gravy.
MASHED SWEET POTATOES
Six medium sweet potatoes
One can gooseberries, (14 oz.)
One fourth to one-half teaspoon of chipotle pepper powder
Skin potatoes and boil until done. Drain water. Put in bowl and add gooseberries and chipotle powder. Mash until light and creamy in texture. Serve immediately.