In my last Imprint Friday post, I introduced you to Alex George's A Good American, which I called "a near-perfect novel."
The book has three constants: music, the Meisenheimer family, and food. Almost by accident, the family finds themselves owners of a speakeasy. As the twentieth century progresses, so does the restaurant, morphing from bar to town diner to Tex-Mex over the course of decades.
I asked Alex if he would tell us a little bit about role food and the restaurant play in his A Good American.
One of the challenges that confronts all novelists is choosing the right jobs for their characters. In my novel, A Good American, the issue was complicated by the fact that, to provide a measure of continuity to the narrative—the story spans four generations of a single family—I wanted a business that could be passed on from one generation to the next.And me too! I loved how the cuisine changed as different individuals and generations took over the Meisenheimer business. And you know what a foodie I am—I'm ready to walk into the joint, pull up a seat, and see what kind of food they're serving today.
Now, my family loves to cook, and to eat. My mother was a professional cook and caterer, my father, a skilled amateur. Their cookbook collection is vast and legendary. They have passed their enthusiasm on to my sisters and me (if not their talent, in my case). The old adage has it that you should “write what you know,” so it was an easy decision to have my fictional family be involved with food: They run a restaurant in a small town in rural Missouri.
What I hadn’t anticipated when I began was how the restaurant became a character in the story in its own right. The book begins with Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer as they emigrate to America from northern Germany. As their family integrates into American life, generation by generation, so the restaurant goes through its own metamorphosis which reflects a similar journey. The original establishment serves starchy German cuisine, although it soon acquires a more exotic edge of Louisiana flavors and spice. The next generation re-creates the restaurant as a quintessentially American culinary institution—the old-fashioned diner. Finally, and perhaps somewhat ignominiously, in its last incarnation it becomes a Tex-Mex place of questionable authenticity.
Although I’ve never worked in a restaurant, I’ve eaten in a fair few (the best kind of research, in my opinion). I enjoyed writing about food—it’s a challenge to convey smells and tastes in the comparatively arid medium of print. My research involved scouring ancient Mennonite cookbooks, poring over wonderful photographs of diners from across the country, and reading countless recipes for gumbo online. I did do some cooking too—but my culinary skills are nowhere near as accomplished as those I give my characters. (One of the benefits of writing fiction is that the world I create in my head is often better than real life.)
Since I finished writing the book, I have pined after some of the characters; they feel like old friends to me now. But almost as much, I miss the food. The Meisenheimer family and their restaurant provide fuel and sustenance to their neighbors over an entire century. All that bratwurst, meatloaf, and jambalaya nourished me too.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Alex.
Amy Einhorn Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Amy Einhorn's open letter posted here on January 25, 2010, or click the Amy Einhorn tab below my banner photo. To join the Amy Einhorn Books Reading Challenge, click the link.