Growing Up at the Steam Table: Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl

Cover image of Memoir of the Sunday BrunchThere are a lot of foodie and food-ish memoirs out there, but Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl is an enjoyable take on growing up in a Wisconsin restaurant family that will resonate with a lot of readers. Maybe especially those who grew up in the late 70s/early 80s when middle-class children had a lot more unstructured free time than they generally do now, but sometimes couldn’t escape spending it (gasp!) doing chores, or even working in the family business.

Julia Pandl, the youngest of nine children, was twelve years old in July 1982 when she started working Sunday brunch at her father’s restaurant. As an adult, the author does stand-up comedy on the side; her good sense of humor and sense of timing come through in her writing.

Here’s an excerpt from the book describing the author’s thoughts about her father, in her early days of helping out during the craziness that was the Sunday brunch at Pandl’s. Here, her father stands across from her, obsessively overseeing the staff and the progress of the diners while serving up scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, steak tips, and the delicate whitefish from behind a massive steam table on wheels.

Amy gave me a quick lesson in the art of pancake making. Honestly, it was a snap. I wielded a swift spatula. My practice cakes were light, fluffy, and done to golden perfection. As customers approached, I asked them, “Blueberry or plain?” Simple.

George stood across from me, fidgeting with the serving pieces, placing them just so, running his hands along the stacks of plates every thirty seconds to make sure they were hot, and clicking a set of tongs with such rapid fire they sounded like the camera shutters of a thousand paparazzi. Click-click-click, as if he were keeping time to some schizophrenic beat in his brain. The twitch, and the big vein pulsing just above his glassy left eye, fell into perfect rhythm: Click-click-click-click, twitch, bulge; click-click-click-click, twitch, bulge. As I poured batter, blueberry or plain, onto the griddle, I wondered if this thing of his had a diagnosis. One of my brothers – Jeremiah, I think – had let me watch The Exorcist, and it looked to me like George and Linda Blair had the same problem.

Nothing stopped the brunch, though, not even demonic possession. I plodded along. It turned out that “doing pancakes” was fun for exactly six minutes. It’s not that tough to get them right, again and again. There’s a book out there about a guy who goes to heaven and plays so much golf that eventually he gets a hole in one every time he steps up to the tee. Perfection begets boredom. Talk to anyone at a cocktail party who got a 1600 on his or her SATs. That’s what “doing pancakes” was like, minus the sense of superiority.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch was originally self-published. According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the author had hoped to write and publish the book while her father, restauranteur George Pandl, was alive to read it. (He died in 2007.) A newly edited version is being released by Algonquin Books today. The author dedicates the book to her mother, father, all her siblings, and “everyone whose first job was at George Pandl’s in Bayside,” but it really is a tribute to her father, who she clearly admired and respected, despite his twitches, quirks, manic work ethic, and crazy parenting methods like waking his kids up in the morning by beating his belly like a drum and singing, and letting them drive just a little before it was legal to do so.

It’s not all comedy. When the book segues from the restaurant work to her parents’ declining health the memoir also loses some of its vigor, but the author still finds life’s moments of humor (a skill which she seems to have inherited from both parents) in sadder times. The author doesn’t seem to be a foodie (She’s addicted to Swedish Fish.) and there really isn’t enough about food and cooking to satisfy readers looking for a restaurant memoir along the lines of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. But, for readers who don’t care for a lot of strong language, this one is pretty tame, especially considering the author is a stand-up comic. It’s more of a family story, with food, than a cooking memoir. Readers who liked The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan, Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, or A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel will probably also enjoy Julia Pandl’s memoir of coming of age as the youngest child in a large Catholic family.

Disclosure: I won an advance reading copy of this book through a Monday Giveaway on the Algonquin Books blog.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch
Pandl, Julia
Algonquin Books
November 13, 2012
256 pp., $13.95 (soft.)

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4 thoughts on “Growing Up at the Steam Table: Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl”

  1. I read about this on Beth’s blog, and I like that it’s about cooking and food but not too much (enjoy reading about it a bit but not a huge fan otherwise). The fact that Pandl’s a comedian makes it more appealing. Good review!

  2. I saw this in Shelf Awareness and liked the sound of it – your review has convinced me to put it on my TBR! I love memoirs and am always on the lookout for new recommendations.

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