Excerpt from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

A Memoir

By Bill Bryson

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2006,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2007,
    224 pages.

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Burns Unit

The only downside of my mother’s working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway. My mother always ran late and was dangerously forgetful into the bargain. You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening. In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late.  As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didn’t call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.  

“It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh. 

Happily, all this suited my father.  His palate only responded to two tastes — burnt and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful.  Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad. 

As part of her job, my mother bought stacks of housekeeping magazines — House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens — and I read these with a curious avidity, partly because they were always lying around and in our house all idle moments were spent reading something, and partly because they depicted lives so absorbingly at variance with our own. The housewives in my mother’s magazines were so collected, so organized, so calmly on top of things, and their food was perfect — their lives were perfect. They dressed up to take their food out of the oven!  There were no black circles on the ceiling above their stoves, no mutating goo climbing over the sides of their forgotten saucepans. Children didn’t have to be ordered to stand back every time they opened their oven doors.  And their foods — baked Alaska, lobster Newburg, chicken cacciatore — why, these were dishes we didn’t even dream of, much less encounter, in Iowa.  

Like most people in Iowa in the 1950s, we were more cautious eaters in our house.* On the rare occasions when we were presented with food with which we were not comfortable or familiar — on planes or trains or when invited to a meal cooked by someone who was not herself from Iowa — we tended to tilt it up carefully with a knife and examine it from every angle as if it determining whether it might need to be defused.  Once on a trip to San Francisco my father was taken by friends to a Chinese restaurant and he described it to us afterwards in the somber tones of someone recounting a near-death experience. 

“And they eat it with sticks, you know,” he added knowledgeably.

“Goodness!” said my mother.

“I would rather have gas gangrene than go through that again,” my father added grimly.

In our house we didn’t eat:

• pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast;
• bread that wasn’t white and at least 65 percent air;
• spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup; 
• fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange breadcrumbs, and then only on Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often;

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Excerpted from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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