Forego that stack of books you meant to read in 2011 and start fresh with "Aftertaste: A Novel in Five Courses."
We featured Mt. Lebanon resident Meredith Mileti's first book in . She will join 10 local and national authors in Pittsburgh's first-ever celebration of the books women love to read Saturday at Barnes & Noble near South Hills Village.
Women Read/Women Write is a chance for you to meet participating authors, listen to panel discussions and spend the afternoon sharing your passion with fellow book lovers.
Over coffee, I sat down with Mileti to learn the backdrop for "Aftertaste," about her favorite places and what's next on her to-do list.
How long was “Aftertaste” in the making?
I wrote the first chapter the summer of 1999 and I did nothing with it. At the time, I was finishing up my dissertation in Developmental and Educational Psychology. I had three little kids at home and I had a job offer. I had to defend my dissertation so I could start teaching graduate students by the end of August.
My husband, who’s been incredibly supportive and a terrific cheerleader said, ‘Look, honey, don’t worry about it—I've got meals covered for the whole summer.’ So here I am working away and I’m miserable. I was miserable because I had this big deadline, but I also realized I missed the creative outlet of cooking—and I really enjoy cooking. Plus, we were eating truly horrible stuff like Hamburger Helper, Mac n’ Cheese and any kind of take-out. So I started taking breaks while I was working—making nice lunches—then one day the main character, Mira, barged in and wanted me to hear her story.
Of course I didn’t tell my husband because I didn’t want him to think I was slacking off. I put it in a drawer then I started teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. So it was a busy two or three years. I was trying to get my research off of the ground and my kids were still young.
Mira kind of bothered me from time to time and I thought, ‘I wish I could figure out what her story is.’ After about four years, I had enough courses under my belt and I could really start to take Fridays off. I devoted those days to writing, but you don’t get too far writing one day a week—at least it got me back into the story.
The following September, I called up Pitt’s English department and asked if I could sit in on a specific faculty member’s fiction seminar. He told me I couldn’t sit in, he said, ‘You can’t sit in and watch, you have to participate. You’ll be in the hot seat like everyone else.’
It was a wonderful experience—I had never shared my writing with anyone. It was eye-opening, at times horrifying, shocking and a great experience. It kept me writing.
A couple of years went by, and I finally took a leave. I was job sharing with a woman and it was time for her sabbatical, which meant it was time for mine. I used the year to really work on the book, but when the sabbatical was over, my book wasn’t finished. My husband said, ‘Why don’t you take another year?’ So I did, which turned into three years and I finished.
New York City is where the story takes place. Is that a favorite destination of yours?
I’ve been going to New York my whole life. My father was from the city and my grandparents lived there. I spent a lot of my childhood visiting. I went to school in upstate New York and we would go to the city on the weekends to have fun and spend a little money. We’d always go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx—sort of a pre-Eataly, Italian-style market.
You share recipes in “Aftertaste.” Are recipes from your childhood included?
I actually hadn’t thought about including recipes when I wrote the book. Someone recently said to me, ‘Food is one of the main characters in the book.’ And that’s true, I love writing about it. I had finished the book and my editor said, ‘I loved this description so much, I had to stop and go eat something.’ Then she asked me to include a specific pizza recipe. She then suggested that we include one recipe from each course. And then a cassoulet—which isn’t particularly Italian. I had never made it, I had just written about it. I was nervous to include it.
It figures in late in the book—it’s made for the heroine in a last attempt to seduce her.
I’m kind of a “seat of the pants” cook. That’s how we learned from our mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and the truth is I’m not really good at following recipes.
I can never really make the same dish twice unless they’re the “tried and true” Italian favorites. That took a lot of finagling to get the recipes right—one of the most difficult parts of writing this book.
Are you still cooking?
I’m having 15 people come for dinner tonight!
Are there specific people who inspired your writing?
I took a cooking class with a woman, Sharon Oddson, who owns Trattoria Garga (with her Italian husband Giuliano Gargani) in Florence. It was several years ago while I was working on the book. She’s maybe a little older than me. I told her I was including her in my book. She said, ‘Don’t make me a wimp. Feel my arms, I have muscle.’ It’s true. I mean, you are moving heavy roasting pans and rolling out pasta. My arms were sore the next morning. That’s what people don’t know—it takes a fair amount of physical stamina to make a decent chef. That’s maybe why we don’t see more women chefs.
Are there places in Pittsburgh that inspired the book?
Yes, several are mentioned. I moved to Pittsburgh 26 years ago from Boston. I was raised in a town called Marblehead—about the same distance from Boston as Mt. Lebanon is to Pittsburgh. I was going to graduate school and I missed having the markets near me. We would go to the North End Market—the Italian section right in Boston. Once day, my friend suggested I visit the Strip—it changed my time here, I love shopping there.
I love Enrico Biscotti, I love Pennsylvania Macaroni Company.
Actually, Enrico’s is thinly-disguised in the book. I changed the name to Bruno. I needed the baker to be a really old man.
The Public Market is a great addition. I thought that would be a fun place to have a book talk. I did a fig demonstration there with Mary Marinelli of the Italian Garden Project. It was about how to grow a fig tree in Pittsburgh.
What’s next for Mileti?
She said she plans to revisit Italy. Currently, her daughter is studying in Florence through a New York University graduate program. Mileti said she'd like to spend a month there brainstorming her next book.
One thing's for sure, non vedo l'ora! (I can't wait!)