Love of Food and Family: A Midwestern Memoir

Book Cover
Destination: Michigan and Anna Maria Island, Florida

Book: Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Love from an American Midwest Family by Kathleen Flinn.

 

 

I’m always happy to find a book that sheds life on real life in the Midwestern United States.  Too often those “fly over” states are ignored, or misunderstood. This food memoir understands life in Michigan–and as a bonus, life in Florida, too.

Since I grew up in Ohio, Kathleen Flinn’s life sounded might familiar to me.  She says in the introduction that she set out to write her parent’s life, but along the way discovered other generations were woven in so tightly that she had to include her grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings as well.

Quote from food memoir

Each chapter tells a story that illustrates the importance of a particular recipe. For instance chicken and biscuits follows the story of her mother and father’s attempt at poultry raising and the downfall of a nasty rooster. You have to read the whole story to appreciate the denouement with her mother, half naked, locked in a chicken coop on a cold Michigan winter day.

Later this conversation in the kitchen between Kathleen Flinn’s mother and father:

“Did you fix the coop?” Mother asked, stirring a pot of soup on the stove.

“Yes, and I fixed the rooster, too.” Dinner the next day was chicken and biscuits.

And you also have to read the entire story to appreciate a honeymoon spent fishing in an Upper Peninsula lake and hanging out with the bride’s parents. But it all makes sense when you get a look at Grandma Inez’ recipe for fried fish with almonds.

Kathleen Flinn had her grandmother’s recipe box, her mother’s notes and oral history, and her own and relatives’ memories to draw on. Additionally, she obviously has done a lot of research to provide the context for the life of her family who struggled to survive while living on a farm, thrived in town life, and finally lived part of their lives in Florida.

Because Flinn paints her family portrait with such telling details, we meet some very interesting people–some that sound familiar, because aren’t they in every family? and some that you’re glad were NOT in your family.

But her most potent memories involve food and the stories of why her parents and her grandparents and others cooked the way they did. Flinn realizes that her love of food and cooking comes with her genes.  Her parents had a restaurant in California for a time, both her grandparents (her mother’s parents) cooked, and her surroundings frequently influenced the food she ate growing up.

Flinn put a lot of thought into how circumstances influenced the food that her family ate.  When they lived on the farm and shopped at the Thrift Store (which her mother called a Department Store so her youngest daughter wouldn’t be ashamed) her mother raised vegetables and chickens and canned hundreds of jars of food each year.

When Flinn’s parents got better jobs and moved into town, they began to eat things that formerly had been considered out-of-reach luxuries, like frozen TV dinners, or meals at McDonald’s.

Because the family joined a German-American club, even though they were  not a bit German, sauerbraten and hot German potato salad  played a role on their menus.

As she grew up, much of Flinn’s cooking was influenced by watching Julia Child’s  shows on a black and white, snowy TV set with a hand-turned antenna and reading  Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Eventually she achieved her dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu in France. All these experiences taught her that the best food was not always the most trendy or the most expensive. Fresh caught fish would always beat out frozen fish sticks.

Each chapter ends with a recipe. After describing the origin of the recipe, she gives us a slightly modernized version. For instance, she skips a lot of the mushroom or celery soup that seemed to be a prime ingredient in just about everything in the 1960s.

On the other hand, she doesn’t fancy-up the recipes, these are American comfort food–Midwestern staples.  You are not going to find the latest  ingredients (no salted caramel or kale and blueberries) or fanciful presentations here.  Instead, you get homey recipes for dishes like stew (see the recipe for that one at Ancestors in Aprons), refrigerator biscuits, apple crisp, oatmeal cookies, panfried steak or spaghetti sauce.

Apple Crips Recipe

I love the way she recreates a time and place.  And I felt so connected to the people in her family that when I cook one of these recipes, it will be like borrowing from a friend.  Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good provides a great example for anyone planning to write a memoir or a family history–even if she is only intending to write it for her own children.

Two quotes from the end of the book sum up the author’s most important lesson.

Like Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I’m pieces of my parents, siblings, grandparents, and great-grandparents. 

 The people in my past helped make me tough, passionate, and endlessly optimistic.

And, she might have added, in love with food and family.

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I have included links to Amazon for your convenience. You need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so any purchase you make through my links helps A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.

The insert with a quote form Grandma Inez and the recipe for Apple Crisp are used with the permission of the publisher,  Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Kathleen Flinn, 2014.

Visit Chris Pavone’s Luxembourg

At the wonderful website for travelers who read–Packabook-- you can sign up for a newsletter “book club” and read a book, as Packabook provides analysis and background information, then find out what it would be like to travel to that country. Recently Packabook’s newsletter focused on Luxembourg in Chris Pavone’s book, Expats.

You may have read my review of Expats (“Sex, Lies and Living Abroad”) here, so I wanted to share this little bit of the travelogue published as part of Packabook’s newsletter, which focused on the question of whether Luxembourg is boring. Certainly not this spooky castle–a world heritage site. It was built by the French in the 16th century and contains miles of subterranean tunnels.

Have you been to Luxeumbourg? Boring??

Back to France and the Impressionists

Book Cover: LIsette's List
Destination: Paris and Provence

Book: Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I never resist the lure of France–particularly when you combine, a book, fine art and some history with the trip.  I’ve read several books and movies about the artists of France here, for example,

 

So how could I resist a new book by Susan Vreeland, Lisette’s List,  that is set in both Paris and Roussillon in Provence, and introduces  Cézanne, Pissarro,  Picasso, and Chagall?

Lisette, the central character is forced to leave her beloved Paris and live in primitive Provence, but there she learns more about art than she ever imagined, and finds safe haven during World War II.

She suffers the loss of the two people most important to her, but learns how capable she is of survival. She matures and works on her life list, which includes the seemingly impossible “#4: Learn what makes a painting great.”

Roussillon, Provence, France
Le Village de Roussillon, Provence, France. Photo by Vincent Brassinne, used with Creative Commons license. See the ochre cliffs in the foreground.

The town of Roussillon is an important character in the book, since it is the site of ochre mines–a place where artists get many shades of color. As Lisette learns to look with fresh eyes at art, she also learns to see people and life in new ways. Vreeland has created a satisfying conglomeration of small-town people to surround Lisette.

The driver of the action of the book is a collection of seven paintings that her husband’s grandfather acquired when he was an ochre salesman and befriended Pissarro, and Cézanne.  Lisette herself meets Marc Chagall and his wife Bella who hide out in a neighboring village during the war, and adds another painting to the collection.

Pissaro painting
A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, by Camille Pissarro. Metropolitan Museum of NYC. Photo by Thomas Hawk

But for most of the book, Lisette holds the paintings only in memory, because before the war, her husband hid them for safety from the Nazis.  Her search for the paintings drives the plot.  However, I found this part of the book unsatisfactory, as it was entirely too predictable and sometimes even repetitive.

For someone with no familiarity with the artists in the book, the discussion of their techniques and styles is a good preliminary introduction to painting. However, if you have a background in art, it may seem a bit too much like an art appreciation course. The author’s love of the art and the countryside are evident. Without question, she throws a great deal of research into her work.

I was hoping for more depth, and now am tempted to read one of Vreeland’s earlier biographical novels, each focused on one artist’s life, to see if those books would be more to my liking. Lisette’s List has some interesting things going for it, particularly in the development of characters, and portrayal of a lesser-known part of France’s art world, but it tends to lean toward straight romance rather than the art historic novel I was hoping for.

I must praise her for bringing to our attention the fascinating village of Rousillon, that certainly is a temptation for travelers. Vreeland’s descriptive powers fit well with a book centered on seeing and observing. Her portrayal of the town and landscape is enough to recommend the book to travelers who read.

Is that unfair?  After all Vreeland wrote the book that she wrote. What I was looking for is beside the point. Have you read any of Vreeland’s books?  Tell me about your reactions.