Category Archives: Travel

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.

———-

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??

Eat Your Culture: History Cookbooks

Destination: Nova Scotia

Books: From the Hearth: Recipes from the World of 18th Century Louisbourg by Hope Dunton

and

Ás an Abhainn Mhóir: English-Gaelic Recipes from Pictou County

Fortress Louisbourg
French waitress at Fortress Louisbourg Restaurant on a sunnier day.

As winds from the Atlantic roared outside, we ducked into the shelter of the L’épée Restaurant in the Fortress Louisbourg.  Seating us at a wooden table with two strangers, the waitress, dressed in homespun with a cap on her head,  handed us a large spoon and warned us “This is your spoon. Do not to lose it. It is the only utensil you get.” She then handed over an enormous  napkin and instructed us to tuck it into the collar like a bib.

Ft. Louisbourg Restaurant
Waitress in Ft. Louisbourg Restaurant

We warmed up over bowls of vegetable soup that had been prepared in a brick fireplace, with bread baked in ovens at the on-site bakery at the Fortress of Louisbourg. We poured water from a common pitcher in the middle of the table where we were seated with strangers, and drank strong tea from pewter mugs.

On my recent road trip through Nova Scotia, I stuffed myself with the fresh seafood available everywhere.  I also plunged into the cultures that predominated in that Canadian province. Those cultures include strong influences on what people eat, and here in Louisbourg, we were getting a taste of a 18th century French settlement.

Of course I looked for books to document the experience! And luckily, I found two cookbooks I could bring home to remind me of how I “ate the culture” of Nova Scotia, one French colonial and one Gaelic.

Cannons at Fortress Louisbourg
Cannons at Fortress Louisbourg

The French and English contended for control for decades. Ultimately, the English won and expelled the French, sending the French Acadians scurrying to safer places–including the Cajun home in Louisiana–but that did not mean that all of Nova Scotia automatically took on an English tone. Many pockets of Acadian culture remain, as some of the French Acadians returned years after the expulsion and settled in places like Cheticamp.

This National Historic Park turns back the clock with a living history museum in the rebuilt French fortified town of Louisbourg. You can visit with the soldiers, the tavern keeper, the workmen and the wealthy merchants as you wander around this beautifully rebuilt fortified town.

Book Cover: From the Hearth
Next door to the Louisbourg restaurant, in the gift shop, I looked over the collection of books–some novels set in the historic Fortress of Louisbourg, children’s books, and cook books. The one that caught my eye, From the Hearth, by Hope Dunton with A. J. B. Johnston, provides recipes that would have been used in the 18th-century at Fortress Louisbourg.

This book is solidly researched. In the introduction, the author explains that although there are no surviving individual recipes from Louisbourg, we know what ingredients they had available (lots of dried peas and lots of cod, but no tomatoes or potatoes yet) and what cook books they might have brought from France.

There are some delicious sounding recipes here–beet fritters, cucumbers farcie (stuffed with veal and mushrooms),  gâteau de savoie (a lemon flavored cake), or doughnuts. Plenty of sauces, as one might expect with French cooking. The book simplifies the old directions, but sometimes includes them for information. For instance, the original doughnut recipes says, “Place fourteen eggs on a scale and on the other side an equal weight of fine sugar; take off the sugar and put flour in its place to the weight of seven eggs.” The modern translation is

  • 14 medium eggs
  • 4 cups extra fine sugar
  • 2 cups cake flour

 

Flags of Nova Scotia
The Nova Scotia Gaelic Flag, Canadian Flag and Nova Scotia Flag

A few days before our visit to Fortress Louisbourg, we visited Pictou where the ship Hector, known as the Scottish Mayflower, landed with the first boatload of Scottish settlers in 1773. There I spent the morning at the  McCullough Heritage Center and the home of an amazing early settler.

McCullough Heritage Center, Pictou
McCullough Heritage Center, Pictou

Gaelic CookbookThe Heritage Center is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Scottish settlers on Nova Scotia, and in their small gift shop, I found a cookbook with recipes in English on one side and in Gaelic on the facing page.  Ás an Abhainn Mhóir (English-Gaelic Recipes from Pictou County), 2011 is a spiral-bound cookbook assembled by The Pictou County Cookbook Committee. I do not know where it is available, but you could contact the gift shop of the McCullough Heritage Center if you are interested.

Gaelic Cook Book
Contents page of Gaelic Cook Book.

Like most community spiral bound cookbooks, the contents are uneven, but I’m eager to try some of the authentic recipes that we enjoyed in Nova Scotia, particularly oatcakes. While this cookbook does not contain the historic detail about food and cooking that the Louisbourg cookbook offers, the committee avoided throwing in modern casseroles and jello desserts. The recipes do appear to be traditional. I love the stories, sayings, poems and song lyrics scattered through the book, because we learn even more there about the way of life of the Scottish settlers in North America.

” ‘S math an còcaire an t-acras!” “Hunger is a good Cook”

“Chan fhiach cuirm gun a còmhradh.”  “A Feast is no use without good talk.”

Sometimes I read books and then go somewhere.  Sometimes I find books along the way. These cookbooks will ensure that memories of my visits to Fortress Louisbourg and to Hector will remain for a long time.