South Boston or Southie is an island connected to Greater Boston by a double handful of bridges and a few tunnels. Only seven minutes away from anywhere in Boston you’d want to go, it’s a separate, self-contained world. It got a bad name during the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s, when the federal court forced students from two equally proud, isolated cultures (white Southie and black Roxbury) to switch schools. Images of screaming white parents mobbing school buses of black children, spitting at the intruders or throwing stones, ruled the TV news, matched by reports of stabbings and black kids dragging a white driver out of his car to beat him, crushing his skull. The mix created a classic case of “contents under pressure,” with predictable results—Boom!
Today, Southie’s congresswoman is homegrown, but Irish-by-marriage and African American. So times have changed, but still, there are scars.
• • •
The Southie of my childhood had been overwhelmingly working-class Irish American for generations. One of the oldest neighborhoods in America, it was settled by immigrants fleeing Ireland’s potato famine in the 1800s. So it’s not surprising that Southie is spiderwebbed with social connections. The first question anyone asks when you meet is, “Are you related to . . . ?” I got to know Mary, one longtime friend, on the Southie Riviera—Carson Beach—when she hit me with, “Hey, are you related to Kenny Lynch, my brother’s friend?” And the second question you always get is, “Where do (or did) you live?” The answer brands you because different stretches of our two-mile-long spit of land—not to mention, nearby Dorchester—were like different villages, each with its own character.
The east or “city” side of Southie—the section fronted by Boston Harbor that faces downtown, full of historic warehouses resettled by Fort Point artists (and now, techie startups)—has gentrified beyond imagination. Even when I was a kid, though, being from City Point on the east side meant money. My home turf was the west side, called the Lower End. It’s dominated by housing projects, Columbia Point (mostly black), D Street, and most important to me, Old Colony and Old Harbor (renamed for housing advocate Mary Ellen McCormack, mother of the speaker of the house in the 1960s). The last two each had twenty-two large three-story apartment buildings, and for big families, Old Harbor also offered about 150 two-story row houses.
My family qualified for a row house at 51 Devine Way, near the rotary separating Old Harbor from Old Colony. I was the youngest of six children born to Barbara Kelleher and Philip “Yapper” Lynch. From what I hear, Yapper was a hard-working taxi driver. He’d been class president at South Boston (Southie) High, which is where he met my mother. He loved to play baseball, and he loved to drink. Even on benders, though, he was charming, with the gift of blarney his nickname implied. He died at age thirty-four, shortly before I was born, so I never knew him. Still, whenever I said the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .,” I imagined that I was talking to him, as well as God, asking for his help and protection.
As a child, I believed that my father had a heart attack. As an adult, I learned the truth: that at some point my mother had to throw him out, and he’d spent a year in a halfway house, fighting to get sober. He’d died of alcoholism, the Irish scourge.
That left my mother with six kids to raise alone. Phyllis, the oldest, was born when my mother was just eighteen. Three boys followed—Paul, who would co-own the Quiet Man; Gerry, nicknamed Jazz, who became a bookie then a cop; and Kenny, the cute one, who loved cars, especially BMWs, and is a truck driver. Then came Beth, my troubled sister, and, four years later, me. By the time I was old enough to know my siblings, Phyllis was nineteen and married, living in her own house in Braintree.
With Phyllis gone, the burden of childcare must have been crushing for my mother. Since she refused to go on welfare, unlike many of our neighbors, she also had to support us. How the hell she managed, I can’t even guess. For as long as I can remember, she worked two or three jobs: waitressing by day, collating from 7:00 p.m. to midnight for Winthrop Press, a company that made flash cards; and on the side selling Avon or Mary Kay cosmetics. She and her friends often met at our house, scheming ways to boost profits. They all aspired to Grand Achiever status at Mary Kay, hoping to score the top sales prize: a pink Cadillac.
The pressure on my mother never let up, even after she got a new husband. Still young when she was widowed, she was a looker, with twinkly green eyes (and a green trench coat to match), high cheekbones, a perfect bouffant, and stylish cat’s-eye glasses. Her boobs were huge from having so many kids. When she got off work and settled into her fabric recliner chair, after tuning in to her police scanner she’d snap off her bra, which fascinated me. Once I tried it on and was shocked to find that each cup was about as wide as my whole body.
When I was three or four, she met Steve, an ex-navy man who wasn’t daunted by her houseful of children. When they married, my sister Phyllis begged, “Ma, get the Pill or something. Six kids is enough.” But for CIAs (Catholic Irish Americans), “rhythm” was the one form of birth control allowed. At Phyllis’s wedding, my mother walked down the aisle pregnant, and she and my sister both had babies in 1971, just months apart.
My baby brother, John, was cute and so chubby-cheeked that I’d stuff his mouth with Oreos just to see how many would fit. He seemed to awaken some buried tenderness in my mother that the rest of us never got. Maybe John was more of a novelty, coming from a different father. I loved him, but I thought he was spoiled.
If Steve had any fatherly instincts, I never saw them. He was a drinker but, unlike Yapper, had a mean streak. Mostly, we tried to avoid him. He worked as janitor at the John Boyle O’Reilly School, contributing little family income. So money was a constant worry. Between her paying jobs, the housework, and keeping a half-assed eye on us kids, my mother always teetered on the edge of burnout.
• • •
It strikes me now that I barely knew my mother, though I lived with her into adulthood. I stayed because I was broke, working to get a toehold in the world. My mother’s dependency was the trade-off. Once, when I bullshitted my way into a chef’s job on a cruise ship, she wrote me a seven-page letter—basically a rant. How dare I just leave? Didn’t I know how hard it was to have six kids and be abandoned by them all? Who would take her grocery shopping with her friends (meaning, who would drive them home after shopping, then stopping for a few martinis)? On and on . . . We didn’t speak for months.
By then, Steve was gone. When I was about thirteen, she threw him out, probably for lying around drunk half the time, cradling a huge bottle of port, with his Irish music playing, in his wife-beater, shorts, and sandals with white socks. So she relied on me for everything. I was always telling friends, “I’ll catch up with you later. I have to run to the druggie”—the corner store, to buy her lottery tickets or one of her three daily papers: the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe, and the South Boston (Southie) Tribune; “and then the deli,” to get her favorite Land O’Lakes cheese, sliced off the block on Number 4, just the right thickness. Or I was off to D’Angelo’s to pick up her favorite sub, Number 9—steak and cheese with mushrooms.
Christmas was a nightmare because I had to buy and wrap gifts for all my siblings, their spouses, and the grandkids, whose names and birthdays were recorded on a white card taped—and retaped, in yellowing layers—to the bottom of the wooden napkin holder on the kitchen table, her command post. Also on the table, which was draped with patterned vinyl to protect the fake wood, were stacks of the magazines she loved, like Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest, interspersed with unopened bills; multiple half-used bottles of mauve-brown nail polish; and the syringes she used for her insulin, since she was diabetic.
But when I was a child, she was a whirlwind, sassy and capable—sewing, ironing the hand-me-downs we wore, sticking a bowl on our heads to cut our hair. Every couple months, she’d subject Beth and me to Toni perms, rolling our hair up on dozens of tiny rods to give us masses of curls. To this day, I gag when remembering the chemical stench of a Toni perm.
My mother was proud that instead of an apartment, we had a proper house, with a tiny fenced-in yard. Like all the row houses, it had a steel-topped sunken trash barrel out front that seemed to breed huge slugs, which freaked me out. To beautify the space, my mother planted roses and a lilac bush. If kids tried to pick the flowers, she’d poke her head out the window and shout, “You touch that and I’ll boil you in oil!”
Other points of pride for her were the gleaming grandfather clock, which was the first thing you noticed coming into the house, and her hutch full of “Hummels,” little statuettes that people used to collect. Only I think most of hers were the giveaway kind—like the little clay beer mug with a shamrock on it—that you’d get for spending a certain amount at Flanagan’s Supermarket. Her favorites were elephants with the trunks pointing up, which she thought symbolized good luck. Every week Steve would dust her knickknacks—a hangover from his navy training, I guess—and shine the decorative white wrought-iron grating over our government-green front door as if it were made of brass.
My mother could be funny. Once I opened the fridge to find my face smiling back at me. She’d taped a picture to the rack to make me laugh. She could also be impatient and fierce. When I was in kindergarten, I was dawdling over breakfast one day and asked for a second bowl of cereal.
“Are you really hungry?” she asked, suspicious. I said yes.
“Well, you better be, because if you don’t eat this, you’re going to wear it.”
Sure enough, I couldn’t finish the second bowl, and she dumped what was left of it over my head. All day I was picking bits of Cheerios out of my hair. If this had happened later, I might have cut school, but kindergarten was the one grade I actually loved, before learning became a challenge for me. I still remember the day we put heavy cream in a mason jar and shook the hell out of it until it curdled. It turned into butter, which we ate on Saltines—a miracle!
Even that young, I had an interest in food, sparked by my mother’s cooking. Though she made plain, down-to-earth meals, with heavy reliance on convenience products, she had particular tastes and added her own special creative touches. Like in her tuna-fish sandwich, which I loved, she’d use only StarKist white albacore in water and Cains mayonnaise, never Hellman’s, thinned with splashes of milk and a secret ingredient, Vlasic pickle juice. She’d mash the mixture with two forks until it was creamy, spoon it onto Sunbeam, not Wonder Bread (which had too many holes), and top it with pickle slices. Before brown-bagging the sandwich, she’d double-seal it in clear waxed paper topped with Saran Wrap.
At school, I’d stick the bag between the cast-iron tubes of the radiator, both to warm it up and so I could enjoy the tuna-fish-pickle smell until it was time for lunch.
When I got home, I’d often find her in the kitchen, smoking a Benson & Hedges while reading the Herald or touching up her mauve-brown nails. “What’s for dinner?” I’d ask.
“Shit on a shingle,” she’d say. “You’re gonna love it.”
And I would. It might be her fantastic flank steak, or spaghetti with her delicious meatballs made of ground beef, garlic powder, dried onion flakes, herbs, Parmesan cheese, and—the magic touch—Saltines soaked in milk. If someone in the family got lucky at keno, she’d make a beef roast topped with sliced onions, seasoned simply with pepper and salt. My first hint of food attunement, as a child, was that I could tell just by the aroma when it was done.
Her pork chops, though tasty, were always fried rock hard. She let them sit in the pan, half submerged in fat, until it was time to serve them with a scoop of Mott’s applesauce. It must have been years before I ever had a pork chop that was easy to cut.
On the side, she’d serve canned peas, but only the Le Sueur petite ones, which were sweet and packed in watery syrup. Even their silver cans looked classy. (“Can we have some of those ‘leisure’ peas?” I’d ask.) We’d have baked potatoes slathered with Land O’Lakes margarine, since no one ate butter back then, or instant mashed, out of a box, dressed up with sautéed onions. I asked my mother once, “If you’re taking the trouble to fry onions, why don’t you fucking mash some real potatoes?”
“Barbara, honest to God,” she said, snorting at such pointless effort. “Where do you come from?”
Today food is my language, the way I communicate with the world. So I wonder if, for her—a woman with too many kids, too little money, a foul-tempered, hard-drinking husband, too much stress overall—creative touches in the kitchen like pickle juice and sautéed onions were a way of expressing love.
Her recipes, her plants, her knickknacks, her scent (Emeraude cologne and powder, from a box with a fluffy puff), her sarcasm, her hard work—to me, these were the factors that defined her. I had no clue as to her personal dreams, her view of our life, her aspirations for her kids, or importantly, her feelings about me. I couldn’t even tell you her favorite color.
Sometimes, in summer, I’d get a flash of a cozier family life. When Steve was sober and in the mood, he’d take my mother, John, and me on the ferry to Nantasket Beach in Hull. Paragon Park was there, with a giant Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, a water slide, the Kooky Kastle house of horrors, and other thrill rides. But what I loved best was the beach, cleaner and less crowded than our Southie Riviera, and the meal we’d share: fried scallops and clams, plus onion rings and French fries, thinly sliced and perfectly crisp, served in red-and-white-checked cardboard boats with crunchy coleslaw and zingy tartar sauce. We’d wash it down with tingly, real soda fountain Coca-Cola. As the sun began to set, we’d make our way to the dock for the boat trip back to Boston, sunburned, full, and sleepy; feeling a warm glimmer of closeness, of belonging, that soon passed.
• • •
Here’s a more typical memory: When I was around five, Sterling Square got a new playground, with cement turtles to climb on. But it didn’t stay welcoming for long. Its benches were almost instantly tagged with graffiti. The sandbox was quickly polluted with sharp can tabs, bottle caps, and glints of broken glass. When it was sunny, all the steel equipment—the slides, the monkey bars, and the chain swings with rubber seats—got hot enough to sizzle your skin. The ground below them was peppered with cigarette butts, roaches burned to the nub, and here and there, crushed Miller High Life and Schlitz cans.
Having been pushed out of the house with the usual “Go play till the streetlights come on,” I went to try out the grim new playground. Climbing on the jungle gym, I slipped and, whacking my windpipe on a bar, hurtled to the ground. For a while I lay on the littered cement, breathless, trying to swallow, petrified that I’d broken something in my throat and was choking to death. When the other kids saw I was alive, they started catcalling, “Hey, Big Bird! Good one!” I managed to get to my feet and head for home.
I found my mother standing on the cover of the hissing, piping hot radiator, a Benson & Hedges dangling from her lips. She had a fistful of newspapers, dipped in vinegar, that she was using to scrub the film of cigarette smoke from the windows. “Ma . . .,” I wheezed, unable to explain the terrifying fall and my panicked belief that I was dying.
She threw me a glance, probably checking for blood. For a second I thought she’d climb down from the radiator, take me in her arms, cuddle me, kiss my forehead, and soothe me: “What a terrible spill. I’m sorry you’re hurt. It’s not serious, though, and I know you’ll conquer those scary monkey bars tomorrow. To hell with those kids who laughed . . .”
Instead she turned back to her task. “Let me finish here,” she said. “You’re going to be fine. Just go lie down for a while.”
Even if she had the inclination, she never had the emotional energy to be loving and giving. I now think that probably she wasn’t just overwhelmed but also was depressed—a state of mind was that was barely acknowledged in Southie.
• • •
There’s another indelible memory from that time that I label mentally as “Darkness.” I say “indelible” though, for years, I could hardly force its images into consciousness. It’s threaded through my psyche in ways that I struggle to understand.
The memory unfurled in my brain, like a film loop, back in July 2013, when the Boston Globe quoted testimony from the racketeering trial of Whitey Bulger. Under questioning about molesting an underage girl, Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi said, “You want to talk about pedophilia—right over there at that table.” He pointed to Whitey.
Pedophilia. Though my experience didn’t involve Whitey himself, the sight of his smug face sent a white-hot rage surging through my body. It was so intense that it seared the lamination off an incident that I mostly relived in disjointed sensations: terror crawling down my spine at the hiss of pipes, or the stench of old urine, or the cement mustiness of a basement; sudden, sharp, private pains; the flicker in my mind of gasping horror, confinement, and blindness.
I knew the details of the incident, of course, but I couldn’t quite grasp the reality. It was like a crackling live wire, a rush of emotion and sensation that threatened to electrocute me. So whenever these feelings sparked, I’d clamp my mind down hard, walling them off. Each clampdown seemed to add a new layer of protection. But now that shell had fractured.
Here’s what happened: I was seven years old, heading home for dinner along O’Callaghan Way. A passageway led off it to Old Harbor athletic courts, an area nicknamed Needle Park. My best friend Jane Mahoney lived on Needle Park, next door to Whitey Bulger’s mother.
In the passageway, three guys were loitering who looked vaguely familiar. Were they friends of my older brothers? Friends of friends? “Hey,” one of them called out, as if he knew me. “I’ve got a little puppy. You want to see it?”
“Yes.” Of course I did.
I followed them into the passageway and through a door leading to the apartment-building basement. On the concrete stairs, the air had a clammy chill and the iron handrail was cold. Though normally brave, I was spooked by the dimness, the stinging smell of piss, the drip and hiss of pipes, and the rumbling of the boiler.
“Where’s the puppy?” I asked.
“Over here, in the next room.”
Then someone grabbed me from behind. A soft cloth—a bandanna? A rag?—was tied over my eyes. A deep fear, radiating from the core of my body to my arms and legs and the roots of my hair, numbed me.
Unable to see, too paralyzed with horror to cry out—not that anyone could have heard me—I remember the cold floor beneath me, the sense of being pulled apart, the thrust of fleshy objects inside me, a shocking awareness of undiscovered parts of my own body. I lost all sense of the passing of time.
Finally the prodding and poking stopped. I was dressed, roughly, and pulled to my feet. The blindfold was yanked off, and I fled up the stairs, too afraid to look back and lock eyes with my unknown attackers.
When I burst out of the passageway, the sky was dark. There was my friend Jane Mahoney. “Babs!” she said. “Your ma called our house. She’s looking for you!”
I was in trouble, out after sundown, late for dinner.
“What are you up to?” Jane was saying. “Your shirt’s on wrong. It’s inside out.”
Distraught, I took off running, unable to squeak out a word.
At home, my mother was cooking, distracted. She didn’t notice my agitation or, at least, didn’t ask why I was late or what was wrong. Luckily, I thought. Or was it lucky? Would I have told her what happened?
I don’t think so.
I didn’t have the words to explain it, for one thing. At seven, I didn’t quite know that my experience was possible, anatomically. I had a faint sense that, according to the church, anything related to your “private parts” was sinful, but the details were sketchy. I felt deeply ashamed for reasons that I didn’t understand.
Even today, picturing my child-self, I can hardly bring myself to connect that image with the word rape.
I also had no idea how my mother would react. There was a chance I’d catch hell for being naïve enough to think I’d get to see a puppy. Was I that dumb? I couldn’t imagine that she’d sympathize. The prospect of her anger, on top of the violation I’d already endured, would have been devastating.
And what if she (or Steve, God forbid—I couldn’t stand the thought of him knowing) got angry not at me but at the men? Violence was a constant current in our lives. There was a kid who bounced a basketball in Needle Park late at night, keeping the neighborhood awake. Even after Whitey’s mother yelled at him to knock it off, he wouldn’t stop. Finally Whitey came out and jabbed a knife into the basketball. Then he yanked it out, stabbed the kid, and rushed him to the hospital. No one found this surprising.
So, if there was a confrontation, anything could happen, I knew. Punishing my attackers, trying to even the score, was too frightening and dangerous to contemplate. So I was mired in helpless rage, mostly at myself, for being too paralyzed to save myself during the assault and, in the aftermath, still too powerless to fight back.
These were just some of the excruciating thoughts and emotions that flooded in, immobilizing me until I learned to quash them. So I told no one about the rape. It was a very heavy burden for a child to carry.
• • •
I kept that secret, that damage, locked inside until my forties, when the Bulger trial shook it loose. I ask myself now, how did I keep it at bay? At least part of the answer is: by outrunning it.
Since my teens, I’ve zigzagged from one adventure to the next, teaching myself to cook, traveling to train my palate and to discover the exotic world beyond the confines of Southie. Since I have a dose of ADD, I’ve always had—and like to have—a dozen possibilities percolating. My business has been something of a high-wire act without a net, taking gambles, thriving on the drama of creation. And working like a demon to the point of collapse, with unrelenting, tits-to-the-wall, full-throttle, thrusting momentum.
Even my pauses—for marriage, motherhood, and continued groping for understanding of myself as lover and as a woman—have been risk-filled and consuming.
Only now, in my second half century, have I had time—or, maybe, have allowed myself time—for the luxury of introspection and the effort to recover and make sense of memories.
But sometimes I think, No wonder I work with flame, ice, and spirits; the clank of stainless steel and the hiss of steam.
A Life of Playing with Fire
Out of Line
A Life of Playing with Fire
“If you have an appetite for culinary adventure, you’ll devour the feisty and fun memoir by James Beard award-winning chef and philanthropist Barbara Lynch.” —Elle
Blood, Bones, & Butter meets A Devil in the Kitchen in this funny, fierce, and poignant memoir by world-renowned chef, restaurateur, and Top Chef judge Barbara Lynch, recounting her rise from a hard-knocks South Boston childhood to culinary stardom.
Celebrated chef Barbara Lynch credits the defiant spirit of her upbringing in tough, poor “Southie,” a neighborhood ruled by the notorious Whitey Bulger gang, with helping her bluff her way into her first professional cooking jobs; develop a distinct culinary style through instinct and sheer moxie; then dare to found an empire of restaurants ranging from a casual but elegant “clam shack” to Boston’s epitome of modern haute cuisine.
One of seven children born to an overworked single mother, Lynch was raised in a housing project. She earned a daredevil reputation for boosting vehicles (even a city bus), petty theft, drinking and doing drugs, and narrowly escaping arrest—haunted all the while by a painful buried trauma.
Out of Line describes Lynch’s remarkable process of self-invention, including her encounters with colorful characters of the food world, and vividly evokes the magic of creation in the kitchen. It is also a love letter to South Boston and its vanishing culture, governed by Irish Catholic mothers and its own code of honor. Through her story, Lynch explores how the past—both what we strive to escape from and what we remain true to—can strengthen and expand who we are.