'Memoir of the Sunday Brunch': Food, Family, Faith

Julia Pandl's memoir elaborates on memories of growing up amidst the sensibilities of her parents: her father’s frugality and work ethic and her mother’s passivity and Catholicism.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch

Publisher: Algonquin
Length: 260 pages
Author: Julia Pandl
Price: $13.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-13

"My mother cried forty-three-year-old tears when she found out she was pregnant with me," writes Julia Pandl, the youngest of nine children, in Memoir of the Sunday Brunch. She writes a feel-good memoir about growing up in a crowded family where everyone is required to work at the family restaurant -- especially at the busy (and dreaded) Sunday buffet. Pandl’s father, George, owned and operated one of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s favorite eateries. While the memoir’s title suggests that Sunday brunch is the primary story, Pandl only spends a few chapters here. Her book elaborates on memories of growing up amidst the sensibilities of her parents: her father’s frugality and work ethic and her mother’s passivity and Catholicism.

The first part of her memoir focuses on childhood and teen years, while the second part changes tone, and documents, sometimes non-chronologically, the deaths of her elderly parents when Pandl is in her 30s. Pandl constructs a folksy bravura that endorses Midwestern American values. Her bio states that she "moonlights" as a stand-up comedian and so PG-rated jokes about vomit and flatulence, with the occasional f-bomb, punctuate her memoir. She writes with a wry, tongue-in-cheek style that coats her anecdotes with sweetness (e.g., "watching George come unglued on a Sunday morning was like sitting next to a silent church fart"). This is a common way to deal with events that are otherwise abusive and tragic.

For example, she writes about various injuries in humorous tones: her brother slicing off the tip of his finger, and the time he clamped both her hands in a vice in the basement and then left her there. She describes a bleeding gash from jumping on her parent’s bed as "about the size and color of a plum." Of course, all of these wounds occur when there is no adult supervision around. As Pandl describes it, "that’s how the chaos was managed in our family: the next oldest kid took care of the younger one. It was a perfectly acceptable arrangement."

She describes how her older sister registers her for school: "My mother couldn’t bear the thought of bringing yet another kid to... school." Her memoir skates across all the dysfunction, coating it in a kind of syrup. It’s all "perfectly acceptable," but there is still that lurking chaos that comes from accepting, not questioning her parent's values.

She places her parents in "the Greatest Generation", Tom Brokaw's millennial catch-all term that basically meant "parents of boomers". In the national argument, these types are respected despite their conservative, if not wacky values and mores. Pandl finds her father charming and heroic, despite his tendency to serve the family cheese and meat "with a little age on it" to avoid wasting any food. George serves her an old steak after he has sautéed it in onions and mushrooms to mask the smell: "it was like chewing the gauze off a festering open wound." Of course, we all accept our family "as-is". But in Pandl's memoir, there are no moments when she moves past the personal to offer a critical perspective.

Details about her mother's experience, she eventually loses a foot to diabetes, haunt the memoir's background: her tears, her nine pregnancies and labors, one lasting four days, and her various aches and pains, which become severe by the end of her life. Pandl focuses on her mother's religion, and the faith that takes her to the Cathedral of St. Paul though she is suffering from back pain with a dearth of painkillers. Pandl describes the look on her mother's face: "Her eyes... had a pristine sparkle like a snow-covered lake on a sunny winter day." Pandl wants to find the panacea to replace the more obvious tragic nature of her mother's life. Like the Catholicism that obviously forbade birth control, mandating nine children, too many for her mother to bear taking the youngest to school.

In the second part of the book, by far the strongest, Pandl's tone changes as she focuses on her parent's health challenges and recounts in detail, their deaths. Here the book becomes a memoir of care-giving, a timely topic for boomers who, in the last decade, nursed "the Greatest Generation" on their collective deathbeds. Pandl turns lyrical and repetitive, writing chapters that feel like prose poems, and that attempt to get at the irrational cold leftovers of grief. As she details the play-by-play of her father's last days, she weaves in quotidian notes from his daily medical chart: medications, meals. "Let's face it," she remarks near the end, "grief can get a little boring." Pandl's memoir is not boring, though she sometimes repeats anecdotes and details that she's already gone over, the same way her own father repeats certain phrases, "rise and shine, daylight in the swamps!" and "what do you think they did in the covered-wagon days?"

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch is about a lot more than Sunday brunch. It's highly readable and while amusing, it's also shocking, as most memoirs usually have to be to raise the story above boring. Pandl's memoir presents ideas about "normal" Midwestern American existence. At one point, she describes accepting how she and her siblings become like their parents, buying pants with an elastic waistband, a seemingly inevitable turn. The memoir insists on this kind of acceptance, often using the metaphor of food. Pandl explains, "food was sacred... eventually food taught us the basics: how to entertain, how to clean up after ourselves, how to behave. It worked. That's as simply as I can put it. Rotten, fresh, messy, pretty—it didn't matter: my family came together around food".

Somehow she also learned that "putting it simply" is a positive. I'm not accepting that value, the virtue of simplicity, quite yet.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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