It might seem difficult to believe, but in modern culinary history there was a time when America’s standard diet — not to mention the menu of the Flinn family of Hope, Mich. — was devoid of pepperoni. Until 1960, Milton Flinn and his young wife, Irene, had taken the recipes of their Swedish and Irish ancestors — Midwest-Style Goulash (melted Velveeta optional), Venison Stew, Bread and Butter Pickles — for granted. Then a relative who knew a moneymaker when he smelled one called long-distance to ask, “What do you know about pizza?”
The answer was: absolutely nothing, but that didn’t stop the Flinns from selling their furniture, piling three toddlers into a 1954 Chevy and driving cross-country to run a family pizza restaurant in San Francisco. This tale of saucy awakening opens Kathleen Flinn’s heartfelt and comforting third memoir about how food, recipes and cooking can add meaning and shape lives. If you’ve ever wondered how the woman who signed up for Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu online (“The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry”) or stalked clueless women in supermarkets (“The Kitchen Counter Cooking School”) came by her sense of humor, her approachable wackiness and her recipe for homemade noodles, it’s here.
Flinn’s upbringing was humble but full of fun, even when her family returned to Michigan and struggled financially. The youngest of five, Flinn remembers the family’s signature “Sweet Salad” (a shredded cabbage slaw with apples, bananas, black walnuts and chopped celery) and the proper way for a girl to introduce herself to new neighbors (dress up in a cowgirl outfit and knock on doors, a basket of banana spice cookies in tow). If that didn’t net you friends, try oatmeal raisin.
The Flinns didn’t just value cooking and frugality; they also put stock in education. Milton splurged on a set of encyclopedias, but not before learning the exact amount door-to-door salesmen were allowed to mark up the price. If the family couldn’t get PBS’ “The French Chef” with Julia Child on their TV, they’d read encyclopedias instead. When the popular girls teased the teenage Kathleen about her old shoes, all those hours with the World Book provided a comeback: “Nike was the winged goddess of victory in Greek mythology.”
Parts of “Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good” feel more anecdotal than illuminating, and some stories feel tacked on; Flinn is at her best when chronicling the family history she herself experienced.
“If there was one thing we embraced about our collective identity growing up, it was that we were poor farm kids, the ones who sat in the brown bag lunch ghetto at school with awkward sandwiches made from homemade bread and cheap olive loaf.”
By the end, readers will think even that sounds delicious.
Mardi Jo Link is the author of “Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm,” winner of the Great Lakes Booksellers’ Choice Award. She lives in northern Michigan.