May 20, 2009

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn
Nonfiction - Culinary Memoir
2007 Viking
Finished on 5/16/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In 2003, Kathleen Flinn was a thirty-six-year-old American in London who felt trapped in corporate middle management—until her boss eliminated her job while she was on vacation. Ignoring her mother's advice that she find another job immediately or "never get hired anywhere ever again," Flinn cleared out her savings account and moved to Paris to pursue a dream—a diploma from the venerable Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.

But instead of being ushered into "a glamorous world of soufflés and foie gras," Flinn found herself struggling in a stew of hot-tempered chefs, competitive classmates, and her own "wretchedly inadequate" French. She trudged home traumatized by gutting fish, severing the heads off rabbits, and dropping an entire roast duck on the floor moments before having to present her plate to the presiding chef. One day she was even advised that her tronçons de colin pochés needed "a bit more salt" from the homeless man who sat near the school's entrance.

As the story moves through the various classes, the basics of French cuisine—the ingredients, cooking techniques, wine, and more than two dozen recipes—are interwoven, but not every page is spent in the kitchen. Flinn also offers her experience of the vibrant sights and sounds of the markets, shops, and avenues of Paris.

In time, Flinn triumphs in her battle with puff pastry, masters her sauces, and wins over the toughest chef. More important, though, she finds within herself the strength to pause on her life's journey to challenge a career-focused mentality and attempt a discovery of what really matters to her. She even comes to realize that the love of her life has been right in front of her the whole time.

Fans of Julie & Julia, Cooking for Mr. Latte, and Eat, Pray, Love will be amused, inspired, and richly rewarded by this vibrant tale of romance, food, Paris, and pursuing a dream.

I love memoirs and since I enjoy cooking almost as much as reading and photography, culinary memoirs are high on my list of favorites. Stephanie (from The Written Word) was kind enough to send me a copy of Flinn's book early last year. I've been trying to get to all the "gift" books I've received over the years and am glad I finally took the time to read this gem! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Kathleen's experiences at Le Cordon Bleu. My copy is littered with sticky notes!

Inspired to do something significant with her life (after typing up a depressingly short obituary for her hometown newspaper), and reminded of her parents' creed that "Life is not a dress rehearsal," Flinn wrote the following "Statement of Motivation" for her application to Le Cordon Bleu:

I have wanted to attend Le Cordon Bleu for at least 10 years. No, that's not true. I think I've always wanted to go to Le Cordon Bleu, even before I knew that's what I wanted. I have been passionate about food and cooking since I was a little girl. Professionally, I have worked as a journalist for more than a decade. I once figured out that by age 30, I'd written a thousand stories. I've worked as a restaurant critic and a food writer, and I believe this training will give me greater understanding and perspective in that aspect of my career. It is my dream to write books about food, about cooking, about nourishing people, heart, soul and stomach....I don't know that I want to be a chef, or that I particularly want to work in the food industry when I am done with my training....I just know that going to Le Cordon Bleu is something that I have to do.

Well, I love to cook, and I love to read memoirs about cooking, but I definitely have no desire to attend a formal cooking school or work as a chef in a restaurant! It sounds extremely demanding (and at times a bit cruel) and I'm afraid I'd walk out without a diploma and absent any of the enthusiasm I might have once had for cooking.

Flinn's experience as a journalist is quite apparent. Her memoir is not only a joy to read, but quite informative. I learned a great deal about the history of Le Cordon Bleu, as well as numerous cooking techniques. And, of course, I marked several recipes to sample in the privacy of my own kitchen. Recipes such as Potage "Minestrone" à la Façon de Ma Mère, Boeuf à la Bourguignonne, Poulet Cordon Bleu, Spaghetti Bolognaise de Sharon, Pizza Grillée, Sauce Tomate aux Herbes et à l'Ail, Coq au Vin et Thym, Filet de Bar au Lait de Coco et Épices Douces, and Boeuf en Croûte Champignons avec Sauce Vin Rouge. How hard could they be? :)

On French cooking and butter:

Chef moves on to the mashed potatoes that will accompany the grilled sirloin we'll prepare in the rest of our practical. "You should add roughly half as much butter as potatoes," Anne translates as the chef churns soft just-boiled potatoes through a food mill. "Un petit peu de beurre," Chef says—"a little bit of butter"—tossing three sticks of butter in. He beats them in with a wide plastic spoon and pours in a generous dose of cream. Mike will love them, but my thighs will not.

On the reality of a professional cooking school:

With a plastic spoon, he scoops up some sauce for a taste, then cuts into my fish. "The fillet is not even, your fish is overcooked, your sauce is too thin, it needs more salt, and your parsley isn't chopped finely enough. Thank you," he looks at my name tag, "Miss Flinn." With a bored tone, he calls, "Next?"

That's it. After three hours, two fish, some three thousand calories in wine and butter, and ruined notes, I clean up, put my tiny fillets in my enormous Tupperware, and wearily head downstairs with Kim, L.P., LizKat, and Anna-Clare, the woman who works across from me.


Kim drops her knives on the floor. "This isn't cooking, it's like learning some complicated sport," she says wearily, tugging off her necktie.

"Why am I so flustered in the kitchen?" Anna-Clare wonders aloud. Like me, she had along dreamed of coming to Le Cordon Bleu and finally convinced her advertising agency to give her a three-month sabbatical so that she could. "It's just bizarre. In my job, I have to make presentations to marketing directors and corporate chiefs all the time, and I can do that without being nervous. I mean, I knew this would be kind of stressful, but I'm surprised at how the scrutiny of the chefs completely unsettles me."

"But you're probably not as emotionally tied to those presentations," I tell her.

I know how they both feel, especially Anna-Clare. In my own kitchen, I'm usually sipping a glass of wine while I cook. Now I'm exhausted, and it's only the second day. I look at my bloodstained apron, gray bits still clinging to parts of it. This isn't like Sabrina at all.

Audrey Hepburn would never have ended up covered in fish guts.

In addition to reading all the entertaining details about a cooking school, I enjoyed a personal challenge of my own. I attempted to translate the chefs' French before reading Flinn's translations. It's been 30 years since I sat in Monsieur Beckers' high school French class! I was very surprised to discover I could understand more than 50% of the French (and closer to 80% by the end of the book). Stupefier! ;)

I've read a few culinary memoirs (and novels) and this rates right up there with Julie and Julia, On Rue Tatin, and The School of Essential Ingredients. Definitely a keeper!

Further praise from a fellow blogger:

With the full support of her then boyfriend Mike, Kathleen embarks on a life changing experience. Not your typical “cooking school memoir” Kathleen tells the story of grueling cooking classes, looking for affordable Paris apartments, planning a wedding and mastering the art of puff pastry with wit and charm. At times laugh out loud funny (the author describing how her so-so French got her the nickname “the crazy pizza lady” from a local restaurant) to the more touching moments of her life (in particular when Mike is involved in a terrible accident), The Sharper Your Knife was a delightful look into the life of a women trying to make her way in Paris. (Stephanie, from The Written Word)

Click here to read Stephanie's interview with Kathleen Flinn.

May 14, 2009

A Month in Summary - April '09

We're already halfway into May and I'm just getting to this monthly summary. Why is it that winter drags on forever, and yet spring seems to fly by like a bat out of hell? As I mentioned in my previous post, I really could use a few more hours in my day. Since I already get up before the sun, I suppose I could try to stay up a bit later. Am I the only one who crawls into bed with a book at 8:30?!

In spite of the single Did Not Finish (brief review to follow, says she with determined optimism!), April turned out to be another good month of reading. Sandford has always been hit-or-miss, so I wasn't terribly surprised (or disappointed) that Mortal Prey wasn't as entertaining as some of his earlier works. I thoroughly enjoyed Chris Cleave's powerful novel and am tempted to go back and read his debut, Incendiary. The Hunger Games was fabulous! Everyone in my face-to-face book club loved this book and we're all anxiously awaiting the release of the sequel this fall. The Midwife is the type of memoir that is so vividly written, it stays with you long after the final page. I have a copy to give away, so if you're interested, leave a comment with your email address and I'll draw a winning name this Sunday night.

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Mortal Prey by John Sandford (2.5/5)

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (4.5/5)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (4.5/5)

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth (4/5)

One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton (DNF)

Favorite of the month: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Books Read 4
Male Authors 2
Female Authors 2
New-To-Me Authors 3
Epistolary 0
Audio 0
Fiction 3
Nonfiction 1
Historical Fiction 0
Coming-of-Age 0
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 1
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 1
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 1
Short Stories 0
Essays 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 1
Re-read 0
Mine 1
Borrowed 3

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

May 13, 2009

Wanted: More Time in My Day

What is it about spring that creates such a sense of urgency to get so much accomplished before summer arrives? Do you all have a To Do list like mine? You know, the kind with unrealistic optimistic goals such as:

Wash the front porch and deck (which are both covered in a lovely layer of fine, yellow pollen)

Wash the cars (see above)

Wash the windows (I'm willing to skip the ones that nobody but us looks out)

Paint the guest room and my office (This has been on my list for a few years now and every spring I say, this is the year!)

Buy annuals and replacement perennials for flower beds and pots on deck. Plant them!

Tackle the weeding before it gets out of hand. (Too late!)

Get the carpets cleaned.

Schedule A/C tune-up before the heat & humidity arrive.

Continue sorting and posting photos recently shot on a couple of trips to Missouri.

Store all the winter clothing and gear that was tossed into a big pile in the basement over a month ago.

Start brushing Annie on a regular basis. She's beginning to blow her winter coat and we're back to dealing with all that beautiful dog hair.

Start using the Swiss exercise ball I bought over a month ago (and have only used once!). Thank goodness I decided to get that rather than a Wii Fit. I'm only out $25 if it doesn't get used as often as it should.

Post new recipes on my food blog. It's been neglected for far too long and I really want to try this recipe.

Read more! I'm still reading the same book I started two weeks ago. It's not long or involved. I'm just too busy (or tired) to read more than a few pages every night.

Post my monthly summary for April! We're almost halfway through May, for heaven's sakes.

So, what exactly have I been doing for the past month or so? Well,
I've been spending a lot of time playing around with my photos, posting a daily shot on my Aminus3 blog, as well as perusing my favorite photoblogs. Plus, my work schedule was tweaked a little bit after the holidays and rather than have my afternoons free, I've been getting home right about dinner time. After a long walk with Annie-dog, a glass of wine (or two), and dinner & dishes, I'm too tired to do much of anything else. Of course, you'd think since I don't have to leave for work until 10:45, I'd have plenty of time to get some of these projects accomplished, but I'm just not that productive first thing in the morning. However, I go back to my 7-2 shift next week, so I have high hopes of crossing some of these tasks off my list before autumn rolls around.

Too bad this blog post wasn't on my To Do list. It'd be nice to finally have something to cross off! :)

May 4, 2009


Time for a toast!

I am so excited! My husband's book is finally out! We received a box from the publisher, full of beautiful copies of The Annotated Sailing Alone Around the World. I couldn't be more proud of Rod. And what a great birthday present for him. Happy birthday, Sweetie. I love you!

From the back cover:

The Annotated Sailing Alone Around the World is a remarkable commentary with precision clarification of Slocum's voyage in his wooden Spray. Reading the side bars brings out a brighter picture and adds greater meaning to each page. Nothing is hidden in the print, in fact, just scanning the side bars doubles the impact of this historic circumnavigation in 1895.

The Joshua Slocum Society puts this edition of Sailing Alone Around the World at the top of their recommended reading list for this sailing season, a must for the cruising group or those at home with feet up in front of the open hearth.

- Ted Jones, The Joshua Slocum Society

I was privileged to be re-introduced to the wonder of Slocum's accomplishments when I read Rod Scher's brilliant annotated version of Sailing Alone Around the World. Rod Scher has transformed the material with information about oceanography, geography, sailing explanations, and history so that a reader is transported back to that era. He provides an authentic venue of understanding exactly what it meant to sail around the world in the late 1800s. Scher has done a remarkable job and has made Slocum's story accessible to a larger audience. This is a tale of adventure, humor and pathos that has been given life once more by Scher's deft handling of the material.

- Patricia Wood, author of Lottery

Rod Scher brings Slocum's fantastic journey of 100 years ago right into today. His critical and insightful annotations not only illuminate, but provide the reader with a lens into the character of the times of this amazing mariner.

- E. Michael Jackson, Teacher CruiseMasters Boating Instruction

May 3, 2009

The Midwife

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth
Medical History/Memoir
2009 Penguin
Finished on 4/28/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Product Description

An unforgettable story of the joy of motherhood, the bravery of a community, and the hope of one extraordinary woman

At the age of twenty-two, Jennifer Worth leaves her comfortable home to move into a convent and become a midwife in post war London’s East End slums. The colorful characters she meets while delivering babies all over London—from the plucky, warm-hearted nuns with whom she lives to the woman with twenty-four children who can’t speak English to the prostitutes and dockers of the city’s seedier side—illuminate a fascinating time in history. Beautifully written and utterly moving, The Midwife will touch the hearts of anyone who is, and everyone who has, a mother.

About the author

Jennifer Worth trained as a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, England. She then moved to London to train as a midwife. She later became a staff nurse at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, and then ward sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Euston. Music had always been her passion and in 1973 Jennifer left nursing in order to study music intensively. She gained the Licentiate of the London College of Music in 1974 and was awarded a fellowship ten years later. Mother of two daughters and grandmother of two; Jennifer lives in Hertfordshire with her husband Philip Worth.

I generally don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I sure do love memoirs, so I was happy to accept a review copy of The Midwife. I had a little bit of difficulty getting started, stumbling a bit through the introduction, but after that it was smooth sailing. The author has an engaging style and I was quickly transported to the streets of East London.

This is one of those books that must cause a bit of confusion for bookstore buyers and merchandisers. The subtitle indicates that it's a memoir. However, Barnes & Noble has it shelved in the medical history section. I'm not sure it's either. I think it falls more into the area of British history, as many of the anecdotes have more to do with life in London after World War II than with the art and science of delivering babies. Regardless of its classification, it's a lovely story of a young woman living amongst a group of kind-hearted nuns, learning the ropes of midwifery.

On the joy of a delivery:

I am about ready to leave. It has been a long day and night, but a profound sense of fulfilment and satisfaction lighten my step and lift my heart. Muriel and baby are both asleep as I creep out of the room. The good people downstairs offer me more tea, which again I decline as gracefully as I can, saying that breakfast will be waiting for me at Nonnatus House. I give instructions to call us if there seems to be any cause for worry, but say that I will be back again around lunch time, and again in the evening.

I entered the house in the rain and the dark. There had been a fever of excitement and anticipation, and the anxiety of a woman in labour, on the brink of bringing forth new life. I leave a calm, sleeping household, with the new soul in the midst, and step out into the morning sunlight.

I cycled through the dark deserted streets, the silent docks, past the locked gates, the empty ports. Now I cycle through bright early morning, the sun just rising over the river, the gates open or opening, men streaming through the streets, calling to each other; engines beginning to sound, the cranes to move; lorries turning in through the huge gates; the sounds of a ship as it moved. A dockyard is not really a glamorous places, but to a young girl with only three hours sleep on twenty-four hours work, after the quiet thrill of a safe delivery of a healthy baby, it is intoxicating. I don't even feel tired.

From large families (one delivery is of a woman's 25th child!) to rickets to interracial births to the horrors of the "workhouse," Worth entertains and enlightens her readers with anecdotes that help balance the story's grim poverty and hardships with stories imbued with her keen sense of humor:

A convent is essentially a female establishment. However, of necessity, the male of the species cannot be excluded entirely. Fred was the boiler-man and odd-jobber of Nonnatus House. He was typical of the Cockney of his day and age. Stunted growth, short bowed legs, powerful hairy arms, pugnacious, obstinate, resourceful; all these attributes were combined with endless chat and irrepressible good humour. His most striking characteristic was a spectacular squint. One eye was permanently directed north-east, whilst the other roved in a south-westerly direction. If you added to this the single yellow tooth jutting from his upper jaw, which he generally held over his lower lip and sucked, you would not say he was a beautiful specimen of manhood.

I noticed an occasional repetition to some of the stories, making me wonder if each chapter originated as an essay or column, later to be woven together in the form of a book. This is very minor quibble, as it really didn't distract from my enjoyment of the narrative.

The Midwife is much more than simply a memoir about a young woman's experiences in her new role as a midwife. It's a warm, engaging examination of life in a convent, life in London's post-war slums, and the friendships that grow between the nuns, midwives and mothers-to-be. If you enjoy any sort of medical narrative or historical memoirs (such as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes), you'll fall in love with Worth's richly evocative story. I certainly did.

Be sure to watch this wonderful video (from of Jennifer Worth discussing her memoir. There are some marvelous black and white photographs included throughout the clip.