One of our recommended books is Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST

A Novel


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Lager Queen of Minnesota, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a novel about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation.

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota.

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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Lager Queen of Minnesota, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a novel about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation.

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

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  • Penguin Group
  • Paperback
  • June 2016
  • 336 Pages
  • 9780143109419

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$17.00

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About J. Ryan Stradal

J Ryan Stradal is the author of Kitchens fo the Great MidwestJ. Ryan Stradal is the author of New York Times bestseller Kitchens of the Great Midwest and national bestseller The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Granta, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. His debut, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, won the American Booksellers Association Indie’s Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association award for fiction, and the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for debut fiction. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in Los Angeles.

Praise

“A sweet and savory treat.”People

“An impressive feat of narrative jujitsu . . . that keeps readers turning the pages too fast to realize just how ingenious they are.” The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Pick

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle – not only success, but also considerable irony, a fair amount of wisdom and a decent meal.” —Jane Smiley, The Guardian

Interviews

1.  What inspired the story of Eva Thorvald?

Many things—perhaps too many to list here—but chief among them is the fact that I relate to her childhood. Like her, I was a child with passionate interests, and I didn’t often have many people with whom I could share them. I depended on concerned adults—in my case, the teachers and librarians at school—for guidance. I know what it’s like to be driven by obsessions not shared by my classmates, and what it’s like to be bullied on the school bus, though in the latter case I never did experience anything like Eva’s satisfying revenge.

Much of the details of her adult life as a chef were influenced by the time I’ve spent with Patricia Clark and Amy Schabert Kovacs, two culinary professionals I have the honor of calling dear friends. They also taught me a lot about the life of a chef behind the scenes, some of which made it into Eva’s story.

2.  You’ve chosen to tell this novel through shifting points of view, including those of supporting characters. How did you decide on this narrative structure?

When I decided to set a book in the Midwest, I knew I would never please everyone with the characterizations, because there’s no prototypical midwesterner. I also wanted Eva’s adult career to be cloaked in mystery and hearsay, and I felt that telling the story from multiple points of view would both allow me to introduce a variety of midwestern characters while simultaneously keeping Eva at a bit of a distance.

3.  Some people might argue that the Midwest isn’t normally associated with great kitchens. Can you talk about your title and how you came to use it?

No great kitchens? Not in my experience! For starters, I would never go up against a midwesterner in a bake-off.

Even though I grew up in Minnesota and attended college outside Chicago, I don’t think my midwestern bias is merely sentimental. The people I know who are serious about food in the Midwest are as simultaneously daring, thoughtful, conscientious, and skillful as chefs anywhere. They also have a ton of heart, patience, and resilience. The Midwest can be a tough place to live much of the year, and having a talented and crowd-pleasing cook at home or nearby is a crucial morale booster during both those months where your snot is frozen and those weeks when you’re eaten alive by mosquitoes.

4.  Eva Thorvald often seems to hover in the background of the story, yet she takes on a legendary quality. How, as an author, do you go about creating a larger-than-life character?

A writing professor of mine at Northwestern University, David Tolchinsky, taught me that a reader won’t often believe what a character says about himself, but will be much more inclined to believe what other characters say about him. Making this hearsay particularly grand contributed a lot to Eva’s legend that I don’t think would have been as effective coming from her own mouth. I also felt that the adult Eva we directly experience had to stand in contrast to this legend. When we see her as an adult, she’s unpretentious, casual, direct, and extremely kind. She has her guard up during crucial moments, but otherwise I think in person she’s open and sweet, and I love seeing how her behavior mixes with the anecdotal Eva to create a fuller portrait of the woman.

5.  Where did you find the recipes in the book? Which, if any, have personal value for you?

Many of the recipes—five of the eight, to be precise—are inspired by recipes from a book compiled by the women of First Lutheran Church, in my grandmother’s hometown of Hunter, North Dakota. My great-grandmother and two great-aunts both have recipes in this book—and they all have personal meaning to me. This was the food I grew up on in Minnesota.

6.  Eva never really knows her real parents yet she is the embodiment of their hopes and dreams—whether through genetics or early exposure or by coincidence. How do you explain it?

A mixture of the first two—genetics and early exposure—that she’s also coupled with a mission to create an identity for herself in a larger world. It’s no accident that the first things that define her as a chef are varieties of hot chile pepper, which aren’t exactly native to the upper Midwest. Like a lot of alienated, intelligent, passionate, and bullied kids, she attaches her sense of identity to a world outside the only one she’s ever known, and finds a small community outside her immediate family to support her interest.

7.  You touch on some very contemporary food culture debates: the elevation of authenticity and heirloom traditions versus cynical “artisan” marketing; an obsession with flavor versus a preoccupation with health; the desire to celebrate local food cultures versus the need for convenience. What is your take on these issues as an eater and (presumably) home cook?

I wanted to capture sympathetically differing points of view in this novel because, frankly, I adhere to both the traditionalism of Pat Prager and the epicurism of Octavia Kincade, and sometimes, the easy indifference of Jordy Snelling. It depends on, as with so many things, context and company. While I have culinary preferences, I am careful not to make them demands.

I do think that knowing the source of one’s food is interesting and useful, but at its most extreme, it can also seem awfully precious. I love how the folks in Portlandia have hilariously skewered its excesses. I grew up in Pat Prager’s world, however, and so I will never fully leave it.

8.  You capture so many different voices in the narrative. Which ones came easily to you and which ones were harder to capture?

Jordy Snelling took the most time. His was the second chapter I wrote, but I labored to get him just right for a long time. (I had a close consultant on this one, too.) Octavia Kincade’s chapter I knocked out over a weekend and barely touched during editing. For some reason, that character was extremely easy for me to write. I have a deep well of sympathy for her.

9.  The final feast in the book serves as an emotional catharsis of sorts for the characters eating it. What were the challenges in capturing such an evocative meal in writing?

For starters, I’ve never had a dinner quite like that myself, where I’d be reconciling the cost of the meal with the meal itself during the experience. I tried to get into the heads of diners who were, to varying extents, being instructed on the value of The Dinner by its price tag, and others who simply juxtaposed the experience with their own expectations. As breathtaking as Eva’s food may be, I feel that these factors would inspire exaggerated reactions like the ones I characterized, and perhaps also responses that would be much more extreme. In Cindy’s case, I also had the challenge of describing a parent eating her child’s cooking for the first time in this heightened context; synthesizing all of this was a dizzying amount of work. I did my best.

10.  The reader walks away with the sense of what could have been and how sometimes small details can weigh heavily on the future—particularly in the case of Octavia Kincade, for instance. Which of these alternate possible paths did you actually wrestle with in deciding your characters’ fates?

Well, I wrote a few chapters early on that didn’t make the book, mostly because they didn’t tell us enough about Eva. I felt that her evolution is at the center of this novel and every chapter had to tell us something new about her. I really had room for only two chapters—Pat’s and Jordy’s—where Eva is a featured extra. Any more than that, I felt, would really test my readers. In one of these excised chapters about sheng pu’erh tea, Ros Wali plays a much more significant role. Another chapter dealt with a man who grew lemon cucumbers, which is a wonderful heirloom cucumber, but not especially common. So when I think of paths not taken in this book, I often think in terms of ingredients; there were so many I considered. Rhubarb, sadly, was never on the table, simply because the final dinner happened well after peak spring rhubarb season. Next time, perhaps.

11.  At the heart of this story is the notion that “food is life.” Can you talk about what this means for you, and what it means for Eva?

Food, for Eva, and for many people, is what brings people together like nothing else; she would say it’s a lingua franca, and an expression of the chef’s identity, but also, when done with care, an expression of love. She’s become uncompromising about her food because she knows how it affects people when done well. To her, good food is an art, a science, a gift, a morale booster, and an embrace. In the absence of her father and mother, Eva has assembled a family of choice through her passion for food, and drawn people to her because of her culinary talent. I’m fortunate to know people like Eva in real life, and the best year of my life so far was when I was getting up every morning to write this book and spend more time in her world.