Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Cover Kitchens of the Great MidwestThe Short Version: Eva Thorvald was born to a talented, food-loving chef father and an aspiring sommelier mother. She quickly develops a love for and skill with food, leading her to eventually become the most impressive chef of her generation. This is the story, or stories really, of how she built a family of her own and how she discovered the dishes that will go into a truly once-in-a-lifetime meal that brings them all together.

The Review: It’s easy to laugh off foodie culture, to look at the molecular gastronomists and the several-hundred-dollar tasting menus and wonder if it could possibly be worth all that.

But think about the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Think about the last meal you ate. Think about the next one you’ll have. Food is important to us, not just because it sustains us but because it provides a unique intersection of artistic expression and companionship that we don’t really get anywhere else. A five-star-chef and a five-year-old (ably assisted) can both make pasta – and both will be “good” for different, distinctive reasons. You will remember the $400 Andrew Carmellini lunch you had to celebrate a promotion and you will remember the slightly-charred, out-of-a-box pancakes your kids made you for your birthday. These things will cause different associations, but it all comes back to one thing: the food. It brings us together, no matter how different we might be.

And that’s, beautifully, what we get in J. Ryan Stradal’s fantastic debut novel. There is something heartfelt and hopeful and dare-I-say-Midwestern about this book but it’s more than just a feel-good comfort-food kind of book; it’s also one of the most interestingly structured stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. Not unlike Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks or even Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, the novel has an ostensible main character – Eva Thorvald – but the stories that make up the novel are not all her stories. Each chapter, all of which (except perhaps the last) could function as a standalone short story, takes as its title the dish or item that will be central to the story – Lutefisk, Venison, Chocolate Habanero, and so on – and each follows a different person at a different point in Eva’s life. So “Lutefisk” is her father Lars before leading up to just after she was born and “Bars” similarly barely features Eva at all. Only “Chocolate Habanero” is told from Eva’s point of view and the rest create a wide-reaching and diverse group of friends and relations who are all connected, in one way or another, by Eva Thorvald. It’s only at the very end, when the recipes are all culminated together into “The Dinner”, that we see the big picture of all the connections.

But Stradal’s delightful storytelling is only one part of this delicious book: the other is that heart I mentioned earlier. Every single one of these characters could be ridiculous, including Eva. Several of them even veer close to being some kind of caricature at times, albeit in a sort of Wes Anderson-y way. (ed. note – Oh man, now I really want Wes Anderson to make this a movie. It is tailor-made for him.) But the Midwest isn’t stereotyped as being big-hearted for nothing and Stradal makes a real effort to see each and every character as human, fully-formed and with their own wants and needs and desires. Even characters who only have a few lines in one chapter are memorable, each of them having had a role to play in moving the story – and Eva’s life – forward. So while Pat Prager’s judgy Lutheran sensibilities make an atheist like me cringe, I never once felt like we (the author and the reader) were making fun of her.  I never once felt judgemental towards her. I felt the same compassion for her as I did for characters who I much more quickly associated with, like the ridiculously-named Braque Dragelski (possibly pregnant college softball player) and Will Prager (Eva’s brief high-school boyfriend).

As with any meal, the combination of the ingredients is what makes all the difference and Stradal blends together his delightful characters and the innovative structure in the perfect balance. He binds it all together with his prose, which is unfussy but still rich and beautiful. He clearly knows his stuff (or he learned it for the book, so either way) when it comes to both food and wine and rarely have I seen an author write so convincingly about tastes. Usually, it feels either like the author tried to hard to express something that is, by definition, inexpressible (a taste cannot, to my mind, ever be 100% translated into words) or like they fell back on the old reliable analogies. Stradal does neither, coming perhaps the closest I’ve ever seen to pulling off that impossible translation. There were a few moments, especially in the last chapter, where I could nearly taste the dishes as I read – a fact that stopped me in my tracks with wonder.

I’m tempted to try and make some of the dishes included here – because, oh yes, did I forget to mention? There are recipes included in the book for everything from chile oil to peanut butter bars. Anyway, I’m tempted to make some and see what happens. And no matter what, good or bad, it’ll be a new memory. How delightful.

Rating: 5+ out of 5. When I say that this book is like comfort food, that’s not quite fair. It is the best comfort food you’ll ever eat – a high class comfort food, like black-truffle-oil mac & cheese with bacon and gruyere or something. (side note: that’s a recipe mentioned in the book. If your mouth waters at that, this is a book for you.) J. Ryan Stradal has produced a hell of a debut, with a vibrant cast of characters and an innovative structural riff, that I practically devoured in the space of about 24 hours. I could talk more, but if you’ll excuse me, I have to go start prepping dinner – I’m suddenly quite hungry indeed.


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