“I don’t have to tell you I love you. I fed you pancakes.”
– my grandmother, Inez Monk Henderson
It’s official. I’ve sold my third book! Viking/Penguin, publisher of my first two books, has purchased my next one. The working title is Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: Culinary adventures from a Midwest childhood. The anticipated publication date is Winter/Summer 2014. My agent pitched it as The Glass Castle meets Ruth Reichl meets David Sedaris, except we were less poor than Jeannette Walls, and I’m not nearly as funny as David Sedaris. Also, we were Baptists, not Jewish. Otherwise, it’s just like that.
I’ve been working on this project on and off for a couple of years, digging into the collective memories of my family, rifling through old recipes and photographs of scenes such as my sister wearing her baton tiara while showing off a mess of freshly caught fish set out on a wet newspaper.
Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good is a memoir with recipes that tells the story of my culinary lineage, but also provides insight into the values, morals and attitudes of food that span three generations. Food writing does an often unappreciated job of articulating so much about shifting culture, and the timeline focused on this book – from 1955 to 1981 – represents a watershed of change in how America viewed food and eating, and how what we think we want can come full circle.
The book starts with my parents, both Michigan natives and the unlikely proprietors of an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. No matter they were the offspring of Irish and Swedish immigrants at a time when Italian was still considered “ethnic,” they packed up their three kids, my mother heavily pregnant with a fourth and headed west, a crib and a rocking chair in a trailer tacked to the back of their station wagon. “It was a great adventure,” mom said. “Until, of course, the whole thing went bust.”
After San Francisco, they dragged the kids back across the country to a dilapidated farmhouse in the curious world of semi-rural Michigan on 10 acres where we lived in poverty for more than a decade. We raised chickens, tended a large organic garden and canned all the results for winter – all those homespun pursuits so much in vogue these days among domestic DIYers. My family did it because once the snow fell, you had to buy your food, and we couldn’t afford that. Of course, that made me long for Wonder Bread, HoHo’s and canned soup. Once our fortunes improved, we moved into the town of Davison, just down the street from a young Michael Moore. Once I had the money to buy Wonder Bread and Ho Hos, all I wanted was homemade bread and my mother’s chicken soup.
In reality, it starts earlier than the 1950s, heading all the way back to 1883 when my 14-year-old great-grandmother Anna arrived from Sweden with her brother and worked for a decade as a cook in middle class Minneapolis households in order to bring the rest of their family to America. My other great-grandparents hailed from Wales and Ireland and worked against the odds to make a life for themselves in American and passed on the recipes they knew from home. Over time, they shifted and bent their recipes to the will of American cuisine.
Hey, but I shouldn’t even be talking about this. I’m going to be resurrecting my recipe testing group once again to test recipes for the upcoming book, and I’ll be hosting a series of “work in progress” readings at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle November through May. I’ll be hosting at least one live online.
Thanks to everyone for their support. It means so much to me. So often, writing feels like a process that takes place in a vacuum.
Now, on to writing the darn thing.