We’re thrilled to be able to share with you an excerpt from Aftertaste: A Novel in Five Courses by Meredith Mileti. “Mileti’s debut novel is as thoughtful and poignant as it is wickedly funny,” says the New York Journal of Books. “It’s one to savor — recipes included.” Be prepared: the below chapter — which takes place in the Strip and features local favorites like the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company — will make you hungry.
“Look,” he says, “so thin you can see through it.” The man behind the counter holds up the piece of prosciutto draped over the back of his hand, a gossamer wisp of meat for me to admire. “Melt in your mouth, this will,” he says, curling his lips into a smile.
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” I agree.
“I’ll put a paper in between each piece ‘cause if I don’t they’ll all stick together. At twenty bucks a pound, I know yins don’t want that.” He speaks slowly, as if he means to teach me something, his accent pure Pittsburghese. He curls his hand into a fist and allows the wafer thin pieces of ham to drape over it.
Then, with a bravado-infused flick of his wrist, he delicately transfers the wisps of meat onto the sheet of butcher paper. With one fluid motion he wraps the package, ties it neatly with butcher’s string and hands it to me.
“A piece for the little one? I got something she gonna like. No prosciutto di Parma. Don’t waste that when she got no teeth,” he chuckles.
“How about this,” he says, thrusting a large fat-flecked sausage at me over the counter. “Mortadella, a good mild taste. Not spicy.” He cuts Chloe a piece and removes the casing before putting it into her outstretched hands. She begins to gnaw.
“Look,” he says laughing, “she know what’s good, that little girl.” We both look at her admiringly.
Chloe and I have spent the first few days settling in, buying the various things I didn’t own or hadn’t packed which, as it turned out, was a lot. In addition to things like shampoo and conditioner, which my father hasn’t needed since roughly 1969, we also had to pick up safety gates for the stairways, little plugs for the electrical outlets and corner protectors for the coffee and end tables, necessities now that Chloe is becoming mobile.
We’ve been here three days already and I’ve yet to cook a single meal. The night we arrived, my dad ordered Chinese take-out from the old Cantonese restaurant around the corner, where they still served the best Egg Foo Yung, light and fluffy and swimming in rich brown gravy. Then there had been Mineo’s pizza and corned beef sandwiches from the kosher deli on Murray, all my childhood favorites. But last night I’d fallen asleep reading Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table and had dreamed of pizza rustica, so when I awoke early on Saturday morning with a powerful craving for Italian peasant food, I decided to go shopping. Besides, I don’t ever really feel at home anywhere until I’ve cooked a meal.
The Strip is down by the Allegheny River, a five or six block stretch filled with produce markets, old-fashioned butcher shops, fishmongers, cheese shops, flower stalls, and a shop that sells coffee that’s been roasted on the premises. It used to be, and perhaps still is, where chefs pick up their produce and order cheeses, meats and fish. The side streets and alleys are littered with moldering vegetables, fruits, and discarded lettuce leaves, and the smell in places is vaguely unpleasant. There are lots of beautiful old warehouse buildings, brick with lovely arched windows, some of which are now, to my surprise, being converted into trendy loft apartments.
If you’re a restaurateur you get here early, four or five in the morning. Around seven or eight o’clock, home cooks, tourists and various passers-through begin to clog the Strip, aggressively vying for the precious few available parking spaces, not to mention tables at Pamela’s, a retro diner that serves the best hotcakes in Pittsburgh.
On weekends, street vendors crowd the sidewalks, selling beaded necklaces, used CDs, bandanas in exotic colors, cheap plastic running shoes and Steelers paraphernalia by the ton. It’s a loud, jostling carnivalesque experience and one of the best things about Pittsburgh. There’s even a bakery called Bruno’s that sells only biscotti—at least fifteen different varieties daily. Bruno used to be an accountant until he retired from Mellon Bank at the age of sixty-five to bake biscotti full time. There’s a little hand-scrawled sign in the front window that says “Get in Here!” You can’t pass it without smiling.
It’s a little after eight when Chloe and I finish up at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company where, in addition to the prosciutto, soppressata, both hot and sweet sausages, fresh ricotta, mozzarella and imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, all essential ingredients for pizza rustica, I’ve also picked up a couple of cans of San Marzano tomatoes, which I happily note are thirty-nine cents cheaper here than in New York.
I’m planning a feast. Today my father and I will cook Italian peasant food, fried, heavy, greasy stuff. We will make Chloe a fried pizza with plain tomato sauce. She’ll get it all over her face and love it. Kid food. It will take all day and the smell of garlic, oil and the fried dough, will hang in the air for a week. I can already feel my spirits begin to lift.
There’s already a line at Bruno’s coming out the door and snaking its way along Penn Avenue. Chloe and I join the line, which this particular Saturday morning, looks to be made up of mostly the well-heeled sipping their Starbucks lattes while waiting for the biscotti flavors of the day.
Bruno’s opened years ago, when I was still in high school. I used to come here often then, mostly to do my homework on the worn wooden tables, sipping lattes and nibbling the biscotti ends, the burnt crusty little bits that Bruno sold for a dollar a bag because they were too small and too well done for anyone else to want them.
I’m sure Bruno won’t remember me. After all, it’s been over twenty years and even if Bruno is still around, he’ll be well over eighty. Chloe and I brave the long line anyway and are finally rewarded a good fifteen minutes later with a black pepper biscotti for me and a vanilla one for Chloe. We are waited on by a young woman who has a thick hoop running through her top lip and another at the top of her ear. No sign of Bruno. Although I’m tempted to ask about him, I don’t.
When we arrive home, my father is sitting in the kitchen, the newspaper open in front of him, putting the finishing touches on the crossword. “Good morning, ladies,” he says with a smile.
Chloe strains in her stroller, arching her back and reaching for me to release her. Seeing my hands are full of groceries, my father moves to free her. “Watch out, Dad, she’s a mess. She’ll spoil your sweater.” Chloe’s hands are greasy from the sausage and the biscotti, which she has managed to completely dissolve by gumming it into a glutinous paste, most of which is now smeared all over her face.
“Ah, I see you’ve been to Bruno’s,” my father says, dampening a paper towel and handing it to me.
“Yes,” I tell him, wiping Chloe’s face and hands. “We brought you some. Black pepper and cornmeal are still my favorites.” I put the packages down. “We didn’t see Bruno, though. Is he—”
“Retired. Or semi- anyway. I see him there every once in a while. His family, a son and a couple of grandkids run the business now.”
“Hey,” I say fishing around in the groceries for the bag from Bruno’s. “I got the fixings for pizza rustica. Want to help?”
“Well, okay, but I’ve got a few things to do this morning,” he says, studying his watch. “If you start the dough, I’ll help you when I get back.”
Once my father leaves, I finish putting away the groceries, taking inventory, as I do, of the contents of his refrigerator. As a cook I generally believe that you can tell a lot about people by what they keep in their refrigerators. What comforts them, what they need to have on hand to sustain them. Bon Appetit magazine publishes an interview with a different famous person each month and often the interviewer will ask the celebrity to name three things that can always be found in his or her refrigerator. The answers are generally too finely crafted to be believable. “A bottle of Stoli, fresh raspberries and beluga caviar” or, “San Pellegrino, fresh figs and key limes.”
Doesn’t anyone else in the world have the wizened carrots and limp celery, the perpetually moldering Tupperware container with last month’s leftovers? The kind you finally throw away, unopened, because the contents are simply too disgusting to deal with? It has always been a point of honor with me that every professional refrigerator I’ve been in charge of has always been scrupulously clean, but my home fridge, well, that’s another story. It had been one of the bones of contention between Jake and me. I have trouble letting go of things. I hold on to them until they rot. Not a pleasant thing to admit about one’s self and probably, in Jake’s defense, not an easy thing to live with either. If I’m ever interviewed by Bon Appetit magazine, will I have the courage to admit to my own bulging Tupperware? Certainly not. “A bottle of Pouilly Fuisee, Niçoise olives and a wedge of camembert,” I’ll gamely respond.
My father, however, belies what I refer to as the Tao of the Fridge. He’s a scientist, which, I suppose, explains the neatly stacked rows of Tupperware containers in the freezer, labeled with the contents and the date in clear block printing. But he’s also a cook, though you might not know it from examining the contents of his refrigerator: a carton of skim milk, two lemons, a container of low-fat cottage cheese, an unidentifiable cheese wrapped in several thicknesses of plastic wrap, a loaf of Jewish corn rye, a large bottle of kim-chee hot sauce (for the Chinese take-out) and in the door, a bottle of red nail polish.
He has lived alone for fifteen years and has gotten used to cooking for himself. From the many years of living with my mother he learned to shop the European way, going to the market every day. Buy only enough lettuce for the evening’s salad, only enough bread for tonight and perhaps tomorrow’s breakfast. Buy fresh herbs only when you need them, which explains everything currently in his refrigerator. Except the red nail polish.
I work for the next couple of hours while Chloe plays on the floor by my feet. I spread out a blanket and put out some toys. I talk to her as I cook; describing the ingredients and what I’m doing with them in that foolish unnaturally high-pitched voice mothers use. When the dough for the pizza has risen, I retrieve Chloe from under the kitchen table where she has settled and sit her on my knee. Together we punch down the dough, burying our fists in its luxurious folds.
We stop for a snack, a couple of slices of prosciutto, some cheese and the heel of a loaf of Italian bread. Because I’m training Chloe to have a sophisticated palate, I do not heed the butcher’s maxim that prosciutto di Parma isn’t worth splurging on someone who has no teeth. Besides, she has four. Not that she needs them, anyway. The meat really does melt in your mouth.
Sometime later, there’s a knock at the back door. It’s Richard, holding a small potted palm and a little stuffed teddy bear. I fling open the door and throw my arms around him.
“Welcome home, bubbie! Careful,” he says into my neck, where I’ve imprisoned him in a hug, “or you will squish these expensive silk leaves. I knew better than to get you a live plant. And this,” he says, holding out the teddy bear and stepping into the house, “is for la diva. I’m, sure she has forgotten me by now, so I have decided to bribe my way back into her heart. Where is she?”
Richard follows me into the kitchen where Chloe is still playing under the table. He gestures for me to be quiet as he pulls out one of the chairs and sits down, dangling the teddy bear in between his knees. To Richard’s delight, it takes Chloe about five seconds to crawl over and reach for the bear and when she does, he leans down, puts his head under the table and smiles at her.
“Hello you. Remember me?” Chloe gives him a tentative half smile and tugs gently on the bear’s leg. It seems that the measure of her response will be dependent on how quickly Richard will release the bear into her custody. He lets go at once and she gives him smile showing all four of her new teeth.
“Yes, well enough. Dad set us up a nice little apartment on the third floor. Decorated it and everything. He hung some pictures and polished my old bedroom furniture. Really nice.”
For as long as I could remember, the third floor had been my father’s haven, filled with all his books, his drafting table and other assorted tools of his trade. I was touched to find he’d converted my old bedroom on the second floor into his new office and taken great pains to set up a little apartment for Chloe and me on the third. There are two rooms, one a little sitting area with an old couch he dragged up from the basement and a couple of bookshelves which he emptied for me. He put my old bedroom furniture in the adjacent bedroom. Nice Danish Modern stuff that I’d thought hopelessly faddish when I was growing up, but which now had taken on a kind of chic mid-century patina. He’d also borrowed a crib from somewhere – he was vague about it when I asked where it had come from—complete with (used, but clean) Winnie the Pooh quilt and bumpers.
“But you know I won’t really feel settled until I cook something. So,” I say, gesturing to the dough into which I have just re-sunk my hands, “pizza rustica.”
“Mmm. Sounds great. I’m starving.”
“Well, you better have a little snack or something because this won’t be ready for a while. Dad must have gone into the office. He left hours ago. I kind of thought he would enjoy helping me make it.”
“Since when does your father decorate?” Richard says, standing up and brushing away a line of flour from his trousers. “This I’ll have to see. And what does he think of his divine granddaughter?”
“He thinks she’s great. You know, he’s acting silly and talking to her in this cute little voice. And he bought her a ton of toys. She’s going to get spoiled.” I pause. I suddenly feel tired and my eyes begin to sting. “Really, he’s been wonderful.”
Richard passes behind me and gives my arm a gentle squeeze. Then, he reaches around me and absently rattles the lid of the sugar bowl, trying to fit the cover back on. “What we really could use is something to nibble.” He gets up and begins randomly opening cupboards, in search of a distraction. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here with a chef so incredible that Gourmet has written about her and there’s nothing to dip in my coffee.” He opens the refrigerator door and turns to look at me with an expression of mock horror on his face. “Starvation rations in here! I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this refrigerator so empty,” he says, leaning in and pulling out one of the white butcher wrapped packages.
“Hey, go easy on that. It’s for the pizza” I say, which earns me a scowl from Richard. “Take some biscotti from that bag on the counter. But while you’re in there, check out that red nail polish in the door of the fridge.”
“In the door, eh?” he repeats.
“Un-huh. In the butter compartment.” Richard opens the compartment, takes out the polish and, reaching into the breast pocket of his shirt, pulls out his half moon glasses in order to inspect the bottle more closely.
“Christian Dior, Flame. Expensive stuff.” He unscrews the cap and pulls out the brush, holding it up to the light. “On the right person, a great color. Not for everyone, a red like this.” When I don’t say anything, he continues with his analysis. “She’s neat, too. The bottle is half empty but there’s no clumpy dried gunk on the rim,” he says, showing me. Richard screws the cap back on and looks over his glasses at me.
“A scintillating analysis, Richard. If the antique business ever goes bust, I think you could make a go of it in the field of nail polish forensics.”
“This,” he says, as if taking my comment seriously, “This is the choice of a confident woman. And one who has lots of experience with makeup. Only the most sophisticated of cosmetics consumers know that you extend the life of your polish by keeping it in the fridge.” He sits down, takes off his glasses and places the bottle on the table between us.
At that moment, as if on cue, we hear the front door open and seconds later voices in the front hall; my father’s deep baritone and another—softer, higher. Seconds later, my father enters the kitchen. With him is a small, neat woman with blonde, tightly permed hair. She’s wearing an aquamarine pantsuit with a plunging (and impressive) décolletage, revealing a large expanse of artificially tanned skin.
“Richard,” my father exclaims with an air of forced joviality, as if he had rehearsed a certain script but has suddenly found himself forced to ad-lib. “How nice to see you!” He strides a couple of steps toward him and offers his hand, which Richard takes and shakes. The woman, now standing behind him, softly clears her throat.
“Oh, forgive me. I’ve brought someone along, a fan of pizza rustica and well, in fact, of all things Italian. Mira, Richard, I’d like you meet a friend of mine, Miss Fiona O’Hare.”
Fiona smiles sweetly. “Richard, I’ve had the pleasure of shopping in your lovely store, but we’ve never been formally introduced.” As she extends her hand, first to me and then to Richard, we can’t help but notice that her two-inch nails are painted, what else? Flame.
Reprinted here courtesy of the author.