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 our . She will join 10 local and national authors in Pittsburgh's first-ever celebration of the books women love to read Saturday at the in Upper St. Clair.
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.
Patch: How long was “Aftertaste” in the making?
Mileti: 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.
Patch: New York City is where the story takes place. Is that a favorite destination of yours?
Mileti: 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.
Patch: You share recipes in “Aftertaste.” Are recipes from your childhood included?
Mileti: 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.
Patch: Are you still cooking?
Mileti: I’m having 15 people come for dinner tonight!
Patch: Are there specific people who inspired your writing?
Mileti: 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.
Patch: 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.
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.