In Meredith Mileti's novel Aftertaste (Kensington Books, $15), Mira, the chef and co-owner of an up-and-coming New York restaurant, finds her professional and personal life imploding. (The frequently funny novel opens at Mira's court-ordered anger-management session.) So, Mira packs up her infant daughter and returns home to Pittsburgh, which -- no surprise here -- turns out to be a great town for food, and maybe a fresh start. City Paper caught up with Mount Lebanon's Mileti, by phone, as she was travelling in Los Angeles.
Do you have any professional cooking experience?
I've always loved to cook -- I've been cooking since I could hold a spoon. I come from a long line of men who cook. I learned to cook from my father and grandfather, while the women sat around reading novels. My father took great joy and pleasure in cooking, and that's what I picked up on.
Mira isn't the winsome pastry chef with lots of free time, as depicted in so many rom-coms.
Mira has a little bit of an edge to her. I have a background as an academic psychologist and in writing the book, some of my interest was motivated by asking: What kind of person becomes a chef? What are the personality characteristics common to people who cook at that level? Years ago in Florence, I took a cooking class from Sharon Oddson and told her I was writing about a woman chef. She said, "Don't make her a wimp. It takes a robust woman to be a successful chef." It's a lot of work especially if you have a small hands-on place [like Mira has]. It really does take a robust person in spirit and body to make a go of it.
Was Aftertaste inspired by Pittsburgh's burgeoning food scene?
Absolutely. We are in the middle of a food renaissance in Pittsburgh, and it's so exciting. It's been very different in the last few years than when I first moved here in 1986. With the exception of the Strip District -- it's been here longer than I have. The thing I love about going to the Strip District, is you make personal relationships with the people who take care of you -- the fish counter at Wholey's; Carol, the "dearheart lady" at Penn Mac.
I take it as a personal affront that the city has not gotten what I feel is our due in national magazines. I think Pittsburgh is a wonderful food town, and getting better every day. That was one of my goals in writing the book was to draw a little national attention, if I could.
In the book, Mira rolls her eyes at the fabulous answers given when magazines ask chefs what three things are always in their fridge. What's in yours?
A jar of my homemade vinaigrette, because when we eat at home, we have a big salad. I included the recipe in Aftertaste. A big block of Parmigiano Reggiano. And fresh yeast, to make bread.