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A Conversation With Meredith Mileti

The Mount Lebanon author talks about her new chef-centric novel, set partly in Pittsburgh

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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.

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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.

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