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Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family

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by Kathleen Flinn

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A delicious memoir from the New York Times bestselling author of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry
In this family history interwoven with recipes, Kathleen Flinn returns readers to the mix of food and memoir beloved by readers of her bestselling The Sharper Your
Knife, the Less You Cry. Burnt Toast Makes You


A delicious memoir from the New York Times bestselling author of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry
In this family history interwoven with recipes, Kathleen Flinn returns readers to the mix of food and memoir beloved by readers of her bestselling The Sharper Your
Knife, the Less You Cry. Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good explores the very beginnings of her love affair with food and its connection to home. It is the story of her midwestern childhood, its memorable home cooks, and the delicious recipes she grew up with. Flinn shares tales of her parents’ pizza parlor in San Francisco, where they sold Uncle Clarence’s popular oven-fried chicken, as well as recipes for the vats of chili made by her former army cook Grandpa Charles, fluffy Swedish pancakes from Grandma Inez, and cinnamon rolls for birthday breakfasts. Through these dishes, Flinn came to understand how meals can be memories, and how cooking can be a form of communication. Brimming with warmth and wit, this book is sure to appeal to Flinn’s many fans as well as readers of Marcus Samuelsson, Ruth Reichl, and Julie Powell.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Flinn's (The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry) recipe-rich memoir of her childhood in Flint, Mich., food is a source of sustenance and familial affection. Her Irish-Swedish family's long history of living on working farms allowed them to feed themselves when they were broke. Her father would go out in the morning before his full time job and pick whatever looked ready and her mother would can dozens of jars of applesauce, pickles, beans, and jams, (a skill taught by Flinn's maternal grandparents). The time-consuming and arduous task on her hands earned her mother the nickname "The Claw." With five children in the house, this way of life was once commonplace through the first half of the 20th century, but people abandoned the practice for grocery store conveniences and shortcuts. The family worked incredibly hard on the farm and had few luxuries, (a splurge was going to McDonald's and spending money the kids had earned picking strawberries on another farm in the summer). Surrounded by a warm, extended family, Flinn's childhood sounds like a wonderful way to grow up, and her additions of mouthwatering Michigan recipes adds even more flavor to her memoir. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Flinn shares uplifting stories of the recipes that shaped her life, from her Swedish grandmother's pancakes to her mom's chicken and biscuits." - More Magazine

" A memoir with lots of eating, road trips and family history, this combination platter will fill you up." - Campus Circle 

"Kathleen is a born storyteller! Her books grab you from page one, and hold onto you and your imagination, until the last page is turned, so it's no surprise that this book is full of charm and wit as well! ...This book will have you laughing and crying! "- Bless Their Hearts Mom Blog

"I was in a reading slump until I picked up Kathleen Flinn's newest book Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good. If you love food or love eating food, this book is for you." - Feed Your Reader Blog 

"This book offers something for us all, and the recipes just add to the charm." - Five Minutes For Books blog

"Craving a beach read with a bite? Kathleen Flinn's new memoir, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, chronicles her Midwestern family's culinary adventures, starting with a move cross-country to run her uncle's pizzeria. There are plenty of hilarious missteps (like a maybe-don't-try-this-at-home experience raising chickens), but food is a blissful constant, even in the craziest of times. And the book is filled with recipes - Grandpa's Mich-Mex chili, Mom's cinnamon rolls - so you can create some memorable family meals of your own." - Redbook Magazine

"You wouldn't think a memoir consisting of someone else's family stories would be all that interesting, but Kathleen Flinn had me hanging on each and every account in her memoir Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good.I connected with her immediately, and while reading I often thought of my own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents... I won't forget these stories." - A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall

Praise for The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry
“I can never get enough of true stories about people who stop in the middle of their life's journey to ask, ‘What do I really want?' and then have the guts to actually go get it. Kathleen Flinn's tale of chasing her ultimate dream makes for a really lovely book— engaging, intelligent and surprisingly suspenseful.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is an engaging story about a fantasy fulfilled. It's Under the Tuscan Sun goes to cooking school.”—Michael Ruhlman, author of The Soul of a Chef

“Although I can't cook my way out of a sac de papier, I found this book a joy to read. It's is a compelling story about learning to cook and learning to love at the same time, told with humility, humor and passion.”—Bill Radke, host of public radio's Weekend America

“Kat Flynn’s vivid story of her adventures at Le Cordon Bleu Paris had me smiling page after page. It's about what you should always think about in the pressure behind a hot stove – the pure romance of cooking.”—Jerry Traunfeld, author The Herbal Kitchen

“Learning to tame a sadistic chef/instructor is one of the tougher trials Flinn faces in this soufflé-light memoir of her life-changing year at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.  Bon appetit.” – Good Housekeeping

“A charming, yet surprisingly suspenseful account of the education of a chef (with some classic recipes and many tips), but also one woman’s inspiring story of rising to, and surmounting, an imposing challenge.” – Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Those who relish the adventures to be found in food will undoubtedly enjoy this tale of a corporate middle manager who followed her heart into the heat of the kitchen and came out a triumphant graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.” – The Christian Science Monitor

Praise for The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

“This could be the most important book you'll ever read" –Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me

“…[A] terrific, inspiring book…” – People (A People Pick)

“If you are going to read one book to change your diet and your life, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is it.” – Associated Press

“An engaging...book on the joys of home cooking and the teaching thereof.” – The Wall Street Journal

“Seattle food writer Flinn guides you patiently in the kitchen like the mom you always wish you’d had to learn how to cook from... like Julia Child before her [she], aims to demystify rarefied culinary know-how and bring basic cooking lessons to the simplest level…In the end, the women gained confidence under Flinn’s wonderfully encouraging tutelage, and fearlessly faced their kitchens and grocery stores with useful knowledge.” —Publishers Weekly

“…Flinn winningly offers inspiration to anyone who cares about cooking but lacks basic tools and skills.” —Booklist

“A Seattle-based writer turned chef demonstrates how readers can transform their lives with the right recipe.… Flinn’s chronicle of her culinary coaching discusses how her students fared, and acknowledges how the process led her to clean out her own cupboards: ‘I am in a battle with myself. It seemed that I had as much to learn as the people I’d just visited.’ The author’s humble approach is inviting and shows why her students were enthusiastic.” –Kirkus (starred)

"An amiable companion to cookbook stalwarts such as Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything, Pam Anderson's How To Cook Without a Book, and Michael Ruhlman's Ratio, this title provides encouragement where the others offer direction. A mash-up of inspiration and reference, it will appeal to readers who enjoy a story with their instruction."  –Library Journal

Kirkus Reviews
An award-winning nonfiction writer and journalist’s recipe-packed memoir of her Midwestern childhood and how she came “to [her] love of the kitchen.”Even before Flinn (The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks, 2011, etc.) was born, cooking defined her family. In the late 1950s, her parents left Michigan to help her Irish uncle run an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. When they returned a short time later to care for her father’s dying sister, they went to live on a run-down farm. The family lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and the Flinn children “never had new clothes, fancy bikes, or enough money for hot lunch at school.” However, between the chickens they raised and fruits and vegetables they grew, the Flinns never lacked for good food. In fact, cooking was the conduit through which previous generations of her working-class family expressed their love for each other. Her maternal grandfather courted her grandmother “not with flowers but with food,” and Flinn’s paternal grandmother kept her children from starving during the Depression with the soups she made from just about anything she could find. When the author’s parents married, her father took his new wife on a fishing honeymoon. After the family’s finances improved, they indulged in the more expensive convenience foods more prosperous families took for granted. Longing for homemade food, Flinn began to experiment in the kitchen and discovered “there was nothing better than feeding people.” Cooking eventually became the way she could forget her status as a social outcast and bond with her dying father when the family moved to Florida. As a young adult, Flinn aspired to attend her culinary idol Julia Child’s alma mater, Le Cordon Bleu. More than a decade later, following along the well-worn path of a family love affair with food, she lived out her dream.A warm, quietly poignant treat.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Also by Kathleen Flinn

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry

Flinn family—rejected Christmas card photo, 1971


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China


A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Flinn

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Photographs courtesy of Irene Flinn

Montreal steak seasoning recipe from Field Guide to Herbs & Spices by Aliza Green (Quirk Books). Used by permission of the author.


Flinn, Kathleen.

Burnt toast makes you sing good : recipes of love, loss, and adventure from an American Midwest family / Kathleen Flinn.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

eBook ISBN 978-1-101-62400-5

1. Cooking, American—Midwestern style. 2. Flinn, Kathleen—Family. 3. Cooks—Untied States—Biography. I. Title.

TX715.2.M53F56 2014



Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.

For my dad, Milton Gale Flinn Sr., and to the memory of my cousin Richard Fridline Jr.

“I don’t have to tell you I love you. I made you pancakes.”

—My grandmother Inez Monk Henderson

So It Begins . . .

I’m Swedish, which makes me sexy, and I’m Irish, which makes me want to talk about it.”

My older sister, Sandy, coined this phrase more than twenty years ago. I use it as if it were mine, just like the forest green sweater that I “borrowed” from her in college, which I wore until it was threadbare and ended up in a box for charity. Isn’t heritage community property?

But I didn’t stop to think about what it meant until I casually trilled that line for a laugh in a talk during my first book tour. As people descended on the last of the warm white wine and softening inexpensive cheese at a cozy bookstore, an affable blond woman loitered patiently at the end of the line. “I’m Swedish and Irish, too,” she said when she appeared at the table where I was signing books. She described a plucky, restless lot who emigrated to America to take on hard lives in their new homeland. “But, then, my parents, that’s when it got boring,” she said with an eye roll. “But yours, they sound so, well, interesting.”

Rarely am I struck without a comment. I’m Irish, after all. But my parents . . . interesting?

“I mean, you threw a dart at a map and moved to a strange city when you were a teenager and then you followed your dream and went to Paris,” the woman continued in my absence of words. “People with normal parents don’t do things like that.”

I’m a typical American mutt. I didn’t know much about my heritage then, not really. The further that I got into it, I discovered that in many ways, my family’s story is both unremarkable and utterly fascinating. Poking into the murky edges of my ancestry, I also uncovered that I’m not who I thought I was, that my pithy line wasn’t quite accurate. I’m a direct descendant of scrubwomen, a circus worker, a midwife, a bootlegger, a bigamist, an auto worker, and a cop. The most notable thing? That so many of my ancestors cooked, either for a living or as their passion. Until I started this journey, I didn’t know just how honestly I’d come to my love of the kitchen.

I consider what follows a multigenerational memoir. I set out to tell my parents’ tale and then realized that by extension, the whole thing necessitated sharing the lives of their parents, too.

In early research, I stumbled on a 1951 Time magazine article about my parents’ age group, the one typically referred to as the silent generation, the children born in the grips of the Great Depression. The so-called greatest generation, which preceded them, inspired tons of ink, as did World War II, the conflict that defined their era. The baby boomers had Vietnam and the resistance and all those cultural counterpoints. By contrast, my parents’ generation fought in Korea, sometimes called the forgotten war. Time magazine referred to the silent generation as a collective “quiet, still flame.”

My parents were rarely still, and never quiet.

I spent a lot of time separating what truly happened from family lore and legend, not always an easy task. It’s tricky working off memory, especially when writing from many people’s versions of long-ago events. The genesis of this book is a series of stories that my mother put down on paper years ago about my father’s childhood, her young family’s years in San Francisco, and life on their Michigan farm. I interviewed my mom, recording dozens of hours of conversation as we sat in our Florida cottage. We drank wine and sat in rocking chairs in a gazebo under swaying palm trees as she recalled details of her life going all the way back to the Great Depression. Then I went to work to confirm as much of it as I could. I’m a trained journalist, so along with numerous interviews of relatives, I scoured letters, public documents, military records, and more than twenty years of research conducted by a professional genealogist.

This is a true story. No names have been changed. My cousins are really named Larry and Gary.

Part I

“Thanks, God, I can take it from here.” —My mother, Irene Henderson Flinn, on marrying my father, Milton


That’s Amore

Clyde (left) and Milton Flinn at my parents’ restaurant, 1960

Hey, Milt!” Uncle Clyde said, calling long distance. “What do you know about pizza?”

With that, my parents sold all their furniture and stuffed the rest of their belongings and three toddlers into the back of their 1954 Chevy Bel Air and headed to my Irish uncle’s Italian restaurant in San Francisco.

Dad was Irish American. Mom was Swedish American. Neither of them knew anything about Italian cuisine. They didn’t care. “So what if we didn’t know anything about the food?” Mom says. “We both believed that life should always be an adventure.”

My mother, Irene Henderson Flinn, just twenty-four, was a pretty, shy brunette with a klutzy streak who favored those bat-wing glasses so popular in the 1950s. She was heavily pregnant, nearly five months along with her fourth child.

My father, Milton, was a twenty-seven-year-old recent college grad and Korean War veteran who had sold life insurance until a major recession swept the country.

Before they met, Mom worked her way through secretarial school and scored a well-paying position with the Michigan Council of Churches. A marine home from Korea, Dad held multiple jobs while juggling a full-time load at Michigan State yet found time to date a half dozen attractive coeds.

At least, until the night he picked Mom up at a roller-skating rink in Lansing.

“Now reverse,” the rink’s announcer instructed a sea of circling skaters in a bored voice.

Dad turned in unison with the young crowd—and slammed directly into my mom, knocking her to the concrete floor.

As he knelt to help her up, Mom took his hands, struck by his chiseled good looks and solid build. A bit like Charlton Heston, she thought.

Then they both noticed they were wearing matching outfits. He wore a butter yellow cotton shirt and gray wool trousers; she was clad in a soft yellow sweater and a similar gray skirt.

“It looks like we came together!” he joked, still holding her hands in his as they stood on the rink. “What are the odds?” Dad skated backward with fluid elegance while she clung to a side wall for support as the hit song “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” by The Weavers played over the loudspeakers. They chatted without listening to the song’s story of a farmer’s life filled with children and hardships, but in the end, love made it all worthwhile. After another song, she implored him, “You’re such a great skater. You should really go skate without me.”

He gently guided her into the brightly lit concession area and bought her a Coke instead. They talked until the staff started mopping up and they realized the place had closed. She was surprised when he offered to take her home, and even more caught off guard when he asked her on a proper date. Mom couldn’t believe her luck that such a smart, handsome college guy wanted to date her. As she confided the story to a co-worker her age attending his college, the woman just shook her head and put up a hand to silence her.

“Listen, I wouldn’t get my hopes up,” she said flatly to my mom as she fixed the circle pin on her shirt. “Don’t you know he’s dating the Water Carnival Queen? They’re the big item around campus. I heard they’re getting engaged.”

The queen was a leggy, glamorous blonde. Her beauty was legend around Lansing.

Mom decided to check out her competition. She learned the beauty queen frequented a certain hair salon on Saturday mornings. With the deft nonchalance of a detective, she feigned waiting for a bus across the street until the blonde turned up. Mom watched her walk with the practiced poise of someone comfortable with being on display. Her dimpled smile showed off perfect, brilliant white teeth that matched her perfect, delicate gloves.

Mom felt beaten. She got on the next bus that arrived, even though she had no idea where it was going. As she took a seat, she gulped back tears. How could I be so stupid? she thought as the bus pulled away, leaving the blonde in the distance. She’s like a movie star. I don’t stand a chance.

After a few dates, Dad pulled into the drive-in movie theater. They’d brought along their own popcorn. He asked Mom to hold the paper bag, and when he took it back he spilled it all over them. “Irene, I’ve got something to say,” he started nervously.

Here it comes, Mom thought. He’s going to dump me.

“I’ve been trying to figure out a way to ask you to . . .” He paused and took a deep breath. “Will you marry me?” he blurted.

“But what about the Water Carnival Queen?” Mom asked, incredulous.

“Are you kidding me?” he responded, dumbfounded. He took her hands gently in his. “You’re the brightest, most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. I knew you were the one for me the minute I picked you up off that rink.”

Just a few months after getting knocked down, Mom was happily knocked up after getting married in a town named Hope. First on the scene was Milton Jr., whom they called “Miltie.” Douglas, “Dougie,” arrived almost to the day the following year, making them what relatives called Irish twins. My sister Sandy came along just two years later.

Sandy’s birth coincided with the so-called Eisenhower recession, which began in 1958, a bleak reminder that the postwar boom years couldn’t last forever. Michigan always feels economic turndowns harder than other parts of the country. After all, a new car is the last thing someone orders when times get tough. Unemployment hit 25 percent in the state, Great Depression numbers. Every night after they put the kids to bed, my parents stayed up late, figuring out bills, worrying.

On one of these nights, the phone rang.

Uncle Clyde had a successful Italian eatery in San Francisco. Would Milt be interested in coming out to California to learn the restaurant business?

Within two weeks, they were on the road. They sold everything except their clothes, the rocking chair, and a baby carriage. “We really didn’t think twice about it,” Mom says. “We just decided to go.”

In Illinois, when they saw the first sign for the famous highway, Mom and Dad burst out singing “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” as the kids cheered. “We felt like those people who went west in covered wagons,” she says. Which made sense, since part of Route 66 follows a wagon trail blazed in 1857 by the U.S. Department of War as a way to access the western frontier. By 1926, the government joined other roads to patch together the nation’s first cross-country highway.

Mom and Dad drove for seven days. Each morning, they scooped still-sleeping children off the hard beds of cheap roadside motels. They stopped to see a few sites to let the kids run around. They took in a big Paul Bunyan statue in Illinois, the world’s largest rocking chair in Missouri, a blue whale in Oklahoma, and a ghost town in California. To save money, they mostly ate sandwiches for lunch and dinner, but they had breakfast out. In Amarillo, Texas, my Midwest parents discovered people outside the movies actually say “y’all” when a waitress asked, “Y’all happy with your cheese grits?” They had never had them before. They marveled at the flavor of the chorizo that came with their eggs at a diner in Arizona and were enchanted at the sight of tortillas in place of toast in New Mexico.

By the end of the week the novelty of the drive wore off. My parents were exhausted. Dad’s left forearm was thoroughly sunburned, the result of hanging it out the window while he smoked his Kent cigarettes. Days of tuneless kids singing “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” over and over again grated on their nerves. The restless toddlers argued in the backseat over insignificant infractions (“He looked at me!”) as they trudged north in California along small highways. My brothers stopped fighting long enough to take in the sweeping view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge against the setting sun and commenced swatting each other again.

They found their way to 2335 Mission Street. Uncle Clyde was outside smoking when they pulled up. “Hey, kid brother!” he yelled, waving at Dad, tossing the butt to the ground.

In his younger days, Clyde was devilishly handsome with a solid jawline and piercing blue eyes topped off with a certain “star” quality. Women stopped in the street and stared at him as he greeted the family, slapping my dad on the back and assuring him that “pizza is the future.” He led them up to the simple apartment above the restaurant where they would live rent-free until they settled in.

The oldest boy in a family of eight, Clyde took on the sense of quasi-parental responsibility that older children often internalize in a large family. That’s why he invited my dad to California. He could have hired someone locally to work in the kitchen and he could have rented the apartment for cash. But that wasn’t Clyde. He knew things were bad in Michigan and he’d always been willing to do anything for his youngest brother. When he was twelve, Clyde saved my father’s life by pushing him out of the way of an oncoming car. Clyde was hit instead. He spent months in the hospital recuperating. As an adult, his limp was barely noticeable.

While pizzerias existed in Italian-American immigrant communities on the East Coast, it was still an “ethnic” food in the rest of the country in the 1950s. In Michigan, it wasn’t easy to come by. “Pizza was really new then,” Mom says. She and Dad had had pizza only once in their lives, at a brand-new place called Shakey’s in Lansing* just after they got married. They bit into the crispy crust blanketed with sweet tomato sauce, gooey with cheese, and spiked with the bite of garlic and the unexpected spice of sliced pepperoni. They ate the entire pizza within minutes, stopping only long enough to breathe and exclaim how great it tasted. They had never experienced anything like it.

That was while Dad was still in college and they had their first baby on the way. As much as they loved it, they couldn’t afford to go back to Shakey’s.

So imagine their delight when they discovered a local grocery carried the new “pizza kit” from Chef Boyardee. The box contained “all the ingredients for a traditional Sicilian-style pizza”: a package of add-water-only pizza dough, a small can of tomato sauce, and a packet of dried Parmesan cheese. Following the directions, they spread the dough with oily fingers into an inexpensive pizza pan, spooned the thin sauce over the top, and then sprinkled it with the powdered cheese. Inspired by the pizza they’d had at Shakey’s, they added mozzarella and sliced kielbasa sausage on top.

They found it lacking compared to the one they’d had at the pizza parlor. Yet they considered it enough of a success to get two boxes to share with Dad’s brother Uncle Bob, who lived in a small, immaculately kept worker’s bungalow in Flint. From their meager budget, Mom and Dad bought a second cheap pan for the occasion. They excitedly served the two pizzas to Bob, his wife, Lillian, and their young children, my cousins Larry, Gary, and DeeDee. Lillian took a dubious bite of the tip of one wedge and then dropped it to her plate.

“I don’t care for it,” she said primly.

Bob had a similar reaction. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep if I eat this. What’s this called again? Pizza? I can’t see this catching on.”

That was my parents’ sole experience with Italian cuisine when they arrived in San Francisco. That one of his brothers didn’t see pizza catching on and another thought it was the future didn’t worry my dad. They’d been raised to be independent thinkers.

Clyde’s restaurant had been christened That’s Amore after the song made famous by Dean Martin. Outside on Mission Street, it didn’t look like much. Once inside, the bony arms of a real oak tree trunk reached up to the ceiling to a hidden grid that held faux leaves and grapes artfully assembled to create the feel of a canopy over the room. Woven through the vines were hundreds of tiny lights. Oil paintings of Tuscan landscapes adorned the walls, while an all-Italian lineup drifted from the jukebox. Chianti bottles fitted with dripping candles adorned the tables, each draped with a red-and-white-checkered cotton tablecloth. With the lights low, the place felt romantic. “It sounds so cliché now, but honestly it was so lovely,” Mom says. “It felt as if you had walked into an Italian outdoor café on a cool evening.”

Clyde had a knack for the restaurant business. The food was fairly priced and plentiful, the service fast, and the date-night feel ensured they sold a lot of wine. Every night, he positioned a worker flipping dough near the front window to lure in customers, an innovative marketing move at the time. The pizzas were created in twenty-inch-wide new heavy-gauge steel garbage-can lids that Clyde had come across cheap at a surplus sale at The Presidio military base nearby. He removed the handles, turned them over, and voilà! Pizza pans. Back then, you could get one of these huge pizzas—which could feed six to eight—for two bucks.

As soon as patrons sat down, a server brought warm garlic bread. Every dinner came with a salad, so those arrived automatically. The place delivered pizzas using three Volkswagen vans, inexpensive to buy and simple to fix. On Sundays, they offered a special family dinner menu designed for churchgoers and weekend drivers. The Sunday menu included more American-style favorites, such as Clyde’s mother’s recipe for chicken and biscuits, for those who considered pizza too “exotic.” Like his brother Bob. Plus they kicked in a discount for seniors and veterans. The combination proved so appealing that people would stand in line down the block, hoping to get a seat.

That’s Amore sold other entrées, but most people came in for the pizza, the spaghetti, and the minestrone soup. The night they arrived, Clyde led the family past patrons chowing on their hot bread and iceberg salads to a giant round table. From the kitchen, he retrieved a pot of the hot soup, stoked with chunks of beef, white beans, and vegetables in a hearty tomato broth. Mom dunked the garlic bread into the minestrone. After a long cross-country drive fueled by cheap sandwiches made on their Bel Air’s tailgate out of a secondhand cooler, it struck her as the most delicious thing she’d ever tasted.

Dad began training as a cook the next day. First he learned how to make the “concentrate,” by mincing pounds of celery, onion, carrots, dried oregano, and garlic with a heavy grinder. This he cooked at a low, slow simmer in a massive commercial sauté pan with a small amount of ground beef for more than an hour, until it softened and mellowed into its own flavor. Once cooled, this concentrate would be frozen into chunks. When the staff of That’s Amore made spaghetti and pizza sauce fresh each day, the cooks simply added the concentrate to cans of diced tomatoes to add in an earthy and “meaty” texture. Even in a sudden rush of business, they could make fresh sauce quickly thanks to the blocks of concentrate.

Then Dad learned to form meatballs, craft ravioli, sear steaks, and dozens of other culinary techniques. Finally, he got a lesson in tossing dough. He was so good that Clyde stationed him in the window. That he looked a bit like Charlton Heston didn’t hurt business.

Meanwhile, Mom took care of the kids upstairs. She collected random pieces of furniture from thrift stores: a rose-colored loveseat, a green plaid sofa, and a beat-up laminated dining room table that she covered with a secondhand tablecloth. The apartment opened onto a flat roof lined with a parapet wall. While the roof afforded no view other than industrial rooftops along the street, it gave the kids a safe place to play without disturbing anyone and a nook to hang her clotheslines. The Mission District had some rough spots in the late 1950s. A wave of Central American immigrants was pouring into the largely Hispanic area, prompting a fresh crime wave thanks to a series of violent turf wars. Mom saw none of this, and instead just noticed the area seemed to have a lovely “Latin flavor” to it as she ran errands and walked the short blocks to Mission Dolores Park, where she took the children to play on the swings.

Clyde was great to the family. Almost every night, the staff would bring up big pizzas for Mom and the kids’ dinner while Dad worked downstairs. The pies made Mom feel embarrassed about the pizzas she and Dad had made from a box. After dinner, Mom made a huge lemon meringue pie in the pan and sent it back down the next day. Clyde loved it. The arrangement worked well until Mom’s doctor told her that even for a pregnant woman, she was gaining too much weight. So Clyde alternated their pizzas with salads and lighter roast chicken dinners.

My folks felt a great deal of gratitude. Before my brother was born in September, they decided to name him “Clyde Michael.” Dad’s brother was overjoyed. But Mom found herself staring at the newborn. All she could think of was Clyde Barrow, the male half of the famed criminal team Bonnie and Clyde. When the birth certificate arrived to confirm its information, she couldn’t hold back. “I just can’t look at this baby and call him Clyde!” Dad agreed. His name was changed to Michael Clyde and they never told my uncle.

While they had a good thing going at That’s Amore, after a year, urban restaurant life started to wear on my parents. The place opened at four in the afternoon and served until well past two in the morning. The din from the dining room made it tough to put the kids to bed. Dad frequently worked twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts and had only Mondays off. It was hard for Mom to get the baby buggy up and down the stairs. The list went on.

Clyde understood.

So they packed up and headed to Marysville, a small town about eighty miles north, not far from Sacramento. The town developed in the mid-1800s as little more than a stop for gold rush era travelers seeking out supplies. Later it became known as one of the towns settled by members of the infamous Donner Party, the tragic wagon train expedition that left its members to resort to cannibalism when they got trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter of 1846. The townspeople named it Marysville after Mary Murphy, one of the expedition’s survivors who settled there.

Mom’s aunt Peggy had moved to the pleasant town from Michigan years earlier. She found them a house and introduced Dad to someone at a fruit-packing company. He got hired as a manager on the spot. But after a few months, apparently forgetting all the reasons the restaurant business had not been right for them, they decided to use all their savings to start their own.

Uncle Clyde gave them his recipes and plenty of advice. He made frequent trips up to Marysville to help them get started. He even helped Dad pick out a commercial pizza oven. Dad was a history buff, so instead of the charming Chianti bottles and Italian countryside inn look carefully nurtured at That’s Amore, Mom and Dad transformed a small storefront into a room vaguely reminiscent of a castle from the latter days of the Roman Empire and dubbed the place The Roman Knight.

Mom found chef uniforms at a local Goodwill. Dad got the tables cheap from a Greek deli that had shut down. They found two pretty waitresses to work the tables and a guy to work in the kitchen. A local printer laminated their menus. They were ready.

Business boomed at first. Mom’s older brother, Uncle Clarence, drove out for an extended visit to see if it made sense to move his own family there. Clarence had learned his way around the kitchen from their father, a former army cook. He offered to work in exchange for room and board. They put Clarence in charge of the daily special. One Tuesday, he made a paprika-spiked fried chicken that was so popular, they began to offer it once a week. People began asking for it every day. Although the place was a pizzeria, a review in a local paper heralded the chicken. Dad put “Clarence’s Fried Chicken” on the regular menu in his honor, right next to the spaghetti and pizza recipes from Clyde.

Mom worked as a waitress for two weeks. Apparently, she was terrible. She won’t even discuss how bad it got before my father gently suggested that perhaps she work in the kitchen. She didn’t get on well there, either. Easily flustered when it got busy, she tended to make mistakes. Once, she forgot to add yeast to a batch of pizza dough. Diners promptly sent the pizzas back. When she tried to cut into one to see what was wrong, it nearly broke the knife.

Everyone agreed that it would be best if Mom used her secretarial training to get a job outside the restaurant. She got hired onto an air force project installing air-conditioning into the western missile silos. At that job, she made enough to pay all their bills while she sat in the relative splendor of an air-conditioned government office. After much prodding, Mom convinced her younger sister, my aunt Mel, to move out to California after she finished up business school. Aunt Mel found work nearby with Western Electric as a secretary.

Life seemed good. The restaurant broke even. Thanks to the cold war, Mom had a secure job. The kids had a yard to play in. Mom had both her sister and one of her brothers with her in California. She had a place to hang her clothesline. Dad managed the kids during the day until Mom got home and then headed to the restaurant.

Then came June.

By lunchtime, it grew gruelingly hot in the dining room. The restaurant had no air-conditioning. To cool the place, they brought in fans, but they couldn’t compete with the pizza oven. Day in and day out, they watched their savings dwindle as they paid staff to look out over an empty dining room. By August, they decided to just shut the place down. Uncle Clarence headed back to Michigan.

Looking for less stressful work, Dad applied to become a police officer.

More than sixty men applied for two positions in San Bruno, an upscale bedroom community just south of San Francisco. Dad was hired along with an Irishman named Brendan Maguire who was straight off the boat from Dublin, where he’d already worked as a cop. San Bruno required officers to live in the city, so Mom and Dad rented a cute house in a pleasant section of town. By now, they were used to moving.

The drive to her government job proved too much, so Mom quit and stayed home with the kids. They planted a small vegetable garden and lined the fences with roses. From their back patio, Mom could see the lights of San Francisco. Aunt Mel found a secretarial job in nearby San Mateo and lived with them for a couple of months. The children loved Aunt Mel, then single and in her early twenties. Mel enjoyed playing with them, plus she had remarkable patience. She could listen to four kids tell different stories and keep track of every word. One night, Doug even made a special request in his nightly prayers as Aunt Mel waited to tuck him into bed.

“And please, God, let Aunt Mel never get married and just live with us forever. Amen.”

Aunt Mel looked up toward the sky. “God, maybe you could just disregard that last part.”

All of them spent weekends playing tourist around the city. They visited the waterfront, Chinatown, and picnicked in Golden Gate Park. They went fishing almost every weekend and camped at Half Moon Bay. Mom missed her parents, but Dad’s mother, Della, was able to make the trip out. They were young, their kids were healthy, and they loved living in the Bay Area. Everything was wonderful.

Until one day, when the phone rang.

Uncle Clarence’s Oven-Fried Chicken

Uncle Clarence deep-fried his popular chicken at my parents’ restaurant. Mom adapted it to an “oven-fried” version to capture the same flavors but with an easier and (marginally) healthier variation for home cooks. The key is to lightly glaze the top of the chicken with some kind of fat before it’s put into the oven. Mom used margarine; you can use butter or a mixture of equal parts olive oil and melted butter. I’m not talking a token drizzle; every inch of the top of the chicken should be moistened.

Mom says: “Sometimes I add cinnamon to the flour instead of sage or poultry seasoning, just for a little different flavor.” This works best with fresh paprika; if yours is vintage, use extra. You can use whatever pieces you want for this if you purchase precut chicken, but if your chicken includes extralarge breasts, cut each one (ribs and all) into two portions. This will make them appropriate serving sizes and assure they’ll cook more evenly.

Note: If you don’t have buttermilk, you can make your own by adding 1 tablespoon (15 ml) white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup (240 ml) milk and let it sit for about 5 minutes. No poultry seasoning? Check out the recipe for a salt-free homemade version on page 252.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 tablespoons (90 g) margarine or butter, melted

About 11/2 cups (375 ml) buttermilk

11/2 cups (200 g) all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons (10 g) coarse salt

1 teaspoon (5 g) ground black pepper

1 cup (125 g) crushed cornflakes

1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) poultry seasoning, or dried thyme and/or sage

One 31/2-pound chicken, cut into 8 to 10 pieces (about 1.5 kg)

1 tablespoon (8 g) paprika, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Using about 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of the margarine, coat the bottom of a roasting pan or a baking dish large enough to hold the chicken pieces in one layer without touching.

Place the buttermilk in a shallow bowl or dish. In another bowl, mix the flour, salt, pepper, cornflakes, and poultry seasoning. Dip each chicken piece into the buttermilk. Shake off the excess and roll in the flour mixture to coat. Place the chicken pieces in the prepared roasting pan, skin side up.

Drizzle the rest of the margarine evenly over the chicken. Dust the chicken liberally with paprika. Put the roasting pan on the middle rack of the oven, uncovered.

Bake for about 1 hour, until the chicken is golden and cooked through. (Small pieces may be done at 45 minutes, so check.) To confirm, push an instant-read thermometer into a meaty section; it should register at least 165°F (74°C). Serve warm. Leftovers reheat nicely in a toaster oven.


The Farm on Coldwater Road

Family portrait, San Francisco, 1961

Milt,” my uncle Bob began. “It’s Hazel.”

In 1964, a five-minute long-distance phone call from Michigan to California cost the equivalent of twenty-five dollars. People didn’t call for a casual chat. Hazel was my dad’s older sister and they were close. Hazel had taken care of Dad as a kid when he was diagnosed with rickets, a painful bone disorder. It was Hazel who shimmied up an apple tree to get them something to eat one afternoon when they were hungry kids fishing together. They lost their hard-found worms and, too poor to buy any more, she put the apple cores on their hooks. In her nine-year-old logic, she argued, “We like apples, maybe the fish will, too.”

Some people find the silver linings in the darkest of clouds. Hazel was one of those. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, everyone was sure she would beat it.

“She’s dying,” my uncle said. “It could be a day, a week, or a month. She’s in bad shape. She keeps talking about you . . . and . . .” He couldn’t go on.

Hazel was just thirty-six years old.

Dad turned ashen. “No one told me it was that bad,” he said, stunned. He stared blankly at my mother across the room. Without a word, he handed her the phone. He sat on the couch, his head in his hands, still in his police uniform.

Bob pulled himself together to talk to Mom. “It’s just a matter of time now. She’s been talking about Milt and she wants to see him. It’s”—his voice broke—“her dying wish.”

Mom’s heart dropped. “We’ll get him there one way or another just as soon as we can.” Then she quickly hung up to avoid costing Bob any more money on the call.

Practical people, they talked about the options. Bob had mentioned flying back to Michigan. A flight would cost about $600, equal to $4,670 today, or about ten times the monthly rent on their house. Plus, they agreed, if he went back for a week, would that be enough?

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Praise for The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry
“I can never get enough of true stories about people who stop in the middle of their life's journey to ask, ‘What do I really want?' and then have the guts to actually go get it. Kathleen Flinn's tale of chasing her ultimate dream makes for a really lovely book— engaging, intelligent and surprisingly suspenseful.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is an engaging story about a fantasy fulfilled. It's Under the Tuscan Sun goes to cooking school.”—Michael Ruhlman, author of The Soul of a Chef

“Although I can't cook my way out of a sac de papier, I found this book a joy to read. It's is a compelling story about learning to cook and learning to love at the same time, told with humility, humor and passion.”—Bill Radke, host of public radio's Weekend America

“Kat Flynn’s vivid story of her adventures at Le Cordon Bleu Paris had me smiling page after page. It's about what you should always think about in the pressure behind a hot stove – the pure romance of cooking.”—Jerry Traunfeld, author The Herbal Kitchen

“Learning to tame a sadistic chef/instructor is one of the tougher trials Flinn faces in this soufflé-light memoir of her life-changing year at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.  Bon appetit.” – Good Housekeeping

“A charming, yet surprisingly suspenseful account of the education of a chef (with some classic recipes and many tips), but also one woman’s inspiring story of rising to, and surmounting, an imposing challenge.” – Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Those who relish the adventures to be found in food will undoubtedly enjoy this tale of a corporate middle manager who followed her heart into the heat of the kitchen and came out a triumphant graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.” – The Christian Science Monitor

Meet the Author

Kathleen Flinn is the author of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, a New York Times best-selling memoir about her experiences at the famed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She leveraged her French culinary training to understand what holds home cooks back from cooking in her widely acclaimed follow-up The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, named a 2012 Non-Fiction Book of the Year by the American Society of Journalists & Authors. A trained journalist and writer for more than 25 years, Flinn’s work has appeared in more than three dozen publications worldwide. She lives in Seattle and Anna Maria Island, Florida, with her husband, Mike, and their trusty rescue dog, Maddy.

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Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's such a cliche but I laughed and cried at this beautiful story about a poor girl growing up on her family farm and the joy and sadness she experienced along the way. I remember thinking "wow, I can't believe she was so generous to teach cooking to a bunch of strangers." After reading this book, I understand why she felt the need to leave the world a better place. Just beautiful. And the recipes look wonderful, too! Very easy and home cook friendly.