Minnesotan Tyler Fiecke makes his fiction debut in EQMM’s current issue (May/June 2022) with the story “Runner.” A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, he makes his living as a chef and has been part of the culinary scene around the Twin Cities for over ten years. Although his debut story is not centered around that scene, the characters in his stories often derive from people he’s met in his career, for he enjoys exploring character through people’s eating preferences—as he explains in this post. —Janet Hutchings
When I read Anthony Bourdain’s first crime-fiction novel, Bone in the Throat, my mind was opened to the fantastic world of “normal” people.
The story was about an unremarkable, heroin-junkie chef from New York City who got himself caught up in the last dying vestiges of la cosa nostra, an FBI investigation, and a murder. It was the first fictional account I’d come across where the characters were regular working-class restaurant people. That was the first time I had married in my mind the characters of fiction and the real world.
Before then, aside from mass market paperbacks inherited from friends and uncles, my reading was composed of the classics, the ones we all read in high school. I’d met Gatsby, Holden, Piggy, Lizzie Bennett, and Captain Ahab. I had visited the dystopian world of Orwell and the seaside lilt of Hemingway. Bourdain dropped me into a broken-down kitchen with bad lighting and no ventilation, tucked beneath a New York city street. There, nothing ever happened . . . until it did.
When I opened Bourdain’s slim paperback I met “The Chef.” He wasn’t handsome, rich, or on television. He had a crumbling lower-left molar, a bad back, and no health insurance. His living situation was squalid and tenuous at best, just barely avoiding homelessness by the skin of his next payroll check. He had a not-so-secret heroin habit and I followed him to the Lower East Side to score dope in an open drug market with an ingenious system of “customer” screening. He lived with the conscious awareness that he was not especially talented or TV worthy. He was not, and would never be, Paul Bocuse. He was a workaday line cook who had just enough capacity for leadership to be put in charge of a half-dozen burnouts and a pile of broken equipment. The chef was trusted by an owner to bang out just-decent-enough food for a less than discerning public, and to not poison anybody with bad shellfish while at it.
What I loved about Bourdain’s book was that he saw everybody. So many small characters received fair consideration to enter the stage. I met a frustrated server who wanted to be an actress. She wasn’t sultry or sexualized. She was a person, working a job, living her life. There was an immigrant bus boy with no motivation other than to work three jobs and send money South. Neither of them got involved in the main plot. They all made the story lovable. Any one of those persons could have been overlooked. Bourdain saw them.
Bourdain also gave me, a marginally-talented chef myself, the permission to pursue my dream of writing fiction. Growing up in a small Minnesota town, I never believed writers were people like me. Writers were intellectuals with large glasses, tweed blazers, and fluffy hair. They were from big cities and had big lives. I didn’t see people like me represented in stories or by storytellers. It took Bourdain and his little crime novel to give me the belief that I could write and that I had interesting stories to tell. I began to see a novel or short story everywhere I looked.
I saw the quasi-legal immigrant standing next to me, day by day, dunking fries in hot grease for wages most would never consider. I saw a story, a heroic one at that. What had this person gone through to get to America to do a job that nobody else wanted? Why was he so impossibly cheerful and hardworking? How does he never get sick?
Often, as crime and mystery writers, we tend to think in terms of really good guys and really bad guys. We line up teams of gumshoe cops against well organized, professional robbers. But most criminals and many of life’s mysteries occur more casually. They can’t all be brilliant villains with a panache for showmanship and rhyming in their magazine-clip-out ransom letters. Look in the police reports of your local newspaper. Follow a local Sheriff’s Department on Facebook. You will see that most criminals are far from evil geniuses. They are drunks, addicts, and perpetual screwups with more bad luck than good. The average real-life hero is just a person who goes to work, pays some bills on time, eats meatloaf in front of the TV, and forgoes a life of crime.
As a chef, Bourdain had a very specific style of handling what and how his characters ate and drank. It was realistic and humanizing and unforgettable. In one memorable scene, pecan pancakes were smothered in butter and syrup, cut up into even bite-sized pieces so that Tommy could pop them into his mouth left handed while he handled his newspaper with the right. It was pleasantly quaint and quiet, a breakfast anyone has had a dozen times. Then, an FBI investigator walks in to harass Tommy about what his wannabe-gangster uncle may have done in the restaurant after hours. The agent then exits the diner, leaving Tommy, and his breakfast, completely ruined. It was deliciously unforgettable.
Just like shoes and haircuts, you can tell a lot about a person by what they eat and drink. Better yet, you can tell a lot about a person by how they like their eggs.
Imagine a soft-scrambled with goat cheese type of guy who watches Gordon Ramsay videos on Youtube? That guy might be the type to iron his underwear and obsess over germs on door handles. Maybe he always wanted to be a chef and became enraged with a local restaurant owner after they refused to hire him due to lack of professional experience.
How about a grown woman who makes herself an egg-in-the-hole? I would imagine that someone who goes through the hassle of making egg-in-the-hole as a grownup must have deep emotional connections to the dish. Maybe she was close to her grandmother, who died early, lacking proper medical care, due to prescription drug costs. The granddaughter now stands over her non-stick pan, buttering a slice of brioche as she contemplates bludgeoning the local prescription-drug sales rep.
Consider the thirtysome-year-old single male who makes an omelet stuffed with American cheese then smothers it in hot sauce. I’d be willing to bet that that guy knows at least one local weed dealer. What if the two of them hatch a hair-brained scheme to knock over a card game and buy some herb in bulk? What if the two of them get away with it and nobody ever finds out? I bet that American-cheese-omelet guy clocks in at a convenience store the next day and takes his brush with criminality with him to the grave. But, before going home, he buys himself a dozen eggs, so he can have an omelet for breakfast.
It’s the little details that make us love the characters who populate our stories. Those are the things that I want to know. Those are the details we never forget. Little details are what made Bone in the Throat a special book.
So, how do you like your eggs?