Author On The Bookcase: Emily Gray Tedrowe, author of Commuters

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Author On the Bookcase

Emily Gray Tedrowe

Emily ray TedroweWith pleasure, I welcome Emily Gray Tedrowe, author of Commuters. Emily's novel traces a year in the life of two families thrown together by the sudden marriage of their oldest members. Commuters is a tale of love, family dynamics, money, and surprising alliances. And food! Emily writes about her character Avery's obsession with food, how it  guides his some of his decisions, and how memorable meals can define one's life. 

"When it came to food,” my character Avery thinks, “food that he would be eating or just in the presence of, he just couldn’t abide any interference or outside opinions.” I’m not that bad, but I understand the obsession. Avery is 20 years old, an ex-drug addict, who stumbles on the crazy-genius idea of opening his own place in New York City—world capital for dashed dreams of restauranteurs. He is also food-possessed and food-besotted; cooking is one of the (PG-rated) ways he shows love for his sexy older girlfriend, it’s how he tries to make his grandfather proud of him. It’s the lens through which he sees the world.  As the characters of Commuters argue about whether a historic tree should be cut down to make way for a pool, Avery cooks. As they fight over money, get ill or get well, buy houses and sell houses, he eats. The more other people talk and talk around him, the more Avery is drawn to the heft of a good chef’s knife, the timing of a perfect popover, or the dizzying glory of a nine-course Michelin-star meal.

Avery’s deep passion for food is perhaps not the main story line in my novel, which traces a year in the life of two families thrown together by the sudden marriage of their oldest members. But as I worked on the book, I came to look forward to writing these “foodie scenes” more and more.  Contrary to what several people have guessed, however, I myself am not a foodie. I cook, sure, but my repertoire tends toward simple pastas or beans and rice. Though going out for dinner is a favorite activity, I wonder if I don’t enjoy the atmosphere and the conversation (and the wine) as much as the meal I order. Readers occasionally ask, then, how I came up with the details of Avery’s dream profession—not to mention some of the crazier dishes he concocts, like those Thanksgiving sweet potatoes he doses with lemon juice, Canadian bacon, apple chunks, and “tiny nuggets of jellied goose fat.”

Though I’ve never worked as a chef, I spent several years waitressing in a wide variety of New York City restaurants. And as anyone who’s done that job can attest, you get to see the cooks really up close and personal—not in a camera-ready faux-villain TV-chef way, but as overworked men (they are mostly men) who are driven as hell and suffer for their art. Yes, they can be cocky jerks because it goes with the territory. But I came to admire the grace under pressure and toughness of spirit in those nearest to the brutally hot stoves; I tried to show that Avery has the possibility to develop these qualities someday.

CommutersAnother way I prepared for writing Commuters’ food-enraptured scenes is by indulging one of my strange proclivities: I love to read about food while I eat. I’ll flip through a cookbook and linger on a twenty-step recipe for beef bourguignon while eating a veggie burger. I like a snack of saltine crackers smeared with cream cheese while studying Cook’s Illustrated on the proper technique for interweaving lattice strips on top of a fruit pie; my leftover black beans and mango in a tortilla tastes better if I’m also reading a review of the newest Chicago hotspot for fusion cuisine. Though I’ve done this for many years, I only realized how useful my weird meta-food reading habit could be when I based so much of Avery’s action and decisions on his relationship with food.

As I write this, it strikes me that my own most memorable meals have to do with the stories of my life.  They are a key to who I am, and who I’ve been.  Of many, these stand out:

  • Lunch on the frigid January day my husband and I proposed to each other; the iced-over trees outside the window; I couldn’t eat anything from excitement but he devoured a bowl of chili—awkwardly holding the spoon because his right hand wouldn’t let go of my hand, wearing its new ring.
  • The forbidden sandwiches Andrea the pizza man would slip me when I gave him the signal—thick slices of fresh mozzarella toasted on a split roll, black from the heat of the oven.  Not supposed to eat on my shift, I would hunch down behind the waitress stand and work fast, burning my tongue, fortifying myself for the next few hours.
  • Long weekend breakfasts at tiny Kitchenette in TriBeCa—eggs, pancakes, juice and coffee—with my two best friends. Having jogged there via the Hudson River path, we immediately demolished any benefit of the exercise, but talked and laughed enough to burn more than a few calories.
  • Pancakes each time my dad was in charge of dinner; hot dogs for the nights my parents had evening plans and a babysitter on the way.
    • A bottle of cheap champagne and a single tin of pricy caviar. I took them with me onto the fire escape on the first night in the first (and only) apartment I lived in by myself. Opening both items, sans correct tools, took a while. One tentative fingerscoopful of fish eggs. Caviar, I thought. Strange. Kind of gross. Instead I drank too-sweet wine straight from the bottle and watched cars flowing west and east on Houston Street, five stories below.

One of the coolest book club activities I’ve heard about is when a group makes food to accompany the book they are discussing, or meets at a restaurant that reflects the characters or the story. I’d be really interested to hear what food you think goes with Commuters—and also fascinated to learn about some of your memorable meals . . . as well as the stories they tell. Happy reading . . . and bon appetit!

Emily Gray Tedrowe lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters. Her short fiction has appeared in Other Voices and the Crab Orchard Review.

Thanks, Emily, for sharing your thoughs of food and life and one idea for a Food by the Book discussion -- "Thanksgiving sweet potatoes he doses with lemon juice, Canadian bacon, apple chunks, and “tiny nuggets of jellied goose fat!"

Check out Emily's website.

What's your memorable story surrounding a meal?  

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