Brunch in Milwaukee, from the point of view of the reluctant chef.
Ah, Sunday brunch. For those of us lucky enough to be mere diners, its mention brings to mind crisp bacon, syrupy pancakes and endless cups of coffee. Julia Pandl's witty "Memoir of the Sunday Brunch," however, is about the flip side of that leisurely meal.
Pandl hails from an old-school restaurant family in Milwaukee that served brunch every Sunday for as long as she could remember. As the youngest of nine children -- or, as she says, "Dad's chain gang" -- Pandl peeled buckets of cooked shrimp with numb fingers, squeezed into skin-tight chef's pants and hid in the corner away from her father's eagle eye just to gulp down some ice water.
Plucked out of a sea of self-published memoirs by a savvy editor at Algonquin Books, Pandl's book is a welcome addition to the deluge of books by celebrity chefs and effusive foodies that crowd the bookstore shelves. The first half of "Memoir of the Sunday Brunch" is a fast-paced, lighthearted testament to growing up in a big Catholic family with a restaurant at its center. Blood was spilled (on a regular basis), pot smoked, curfews broken, and by the time Pandl reached her teens her parents had seen everything and "all the jagged edges had been worn down."
Pandl hilariously devotes a fair amount of the book to her father's penchant for serving his family the questionable remains of the restaurant's refrigerator, or the way he often hid spoiled meat in casseroles or in fresher fare. Despite his many subversive tactics, or maybe because of them, the Pandls intimately understood food's importance in their day-to-day lives. "Food did much more than satisfy our appetites. It put a roof over our heads and shoes on our feet, sent us to private school, and paid for college."
Pandl's descriptions of her parents are so sharply written that it's easy to imagine George and Terry Pandl as people we might know ourselves -- our friends' parents, or even our own.
The pace slows in the second half of the book, and Pandl's writing style reflects a shift in time and emotion. The family's intense restaurant days are behind them, her parents are physically in decline, and Pandl artfully observes her own habits as she ages. "Our parents are planted everywhere in us. ... The older we get, the stronger the roots. In time we become what we said we never would -- we become them -- and we smile in spite of ourselves."
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.