J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, is a fantastic stew of adventures, quirks and comestibles in the state of Minnesota, USA. The author, who grew up in this region, draws significantly from his own culinary experiences and childhood memories of Scandinavian food (fancy a plate of lutefisk, anyone?), mixing it well in a brilliant and funny, contemporary narrative.
When the enthusiastic chef and foodie Lars Thorvald marries the clever waitress Cynthia Hargreaves, he later discovers another passion: fatherhood. His daughter Eva means everything to him, as much as Cynthia does. Taking care of his wife and kid goes well with his culinary career, like a good Sauvignon Blanc, but his wife can’t handle it. With her gone, he does it on his own. But it isn’t an easy task; he dies before Eva’s big story even begins.
A chapter later, Eva, adopted by her uncle Jarl after his brother’s death, is now eleven. But at so young an age, she embarks on an exciting adventure after discovering a high tolerance for extremely spicy food and using it to teach the school bullies a lesson. She’s a gourmet just like her old man, and her Norse surname means ‘Thor’s ruler’ – a rather appropriate name for someone who’ll soon take the cooking world by storm.
Eva, lively and tenacious, grabs every opportunity. When still in high school, she picks up an offer to do work experience in a restaurant kitchen. Almost on every page she whips something up, be it a mean fried walleye or classic French onion soup. Still, the story has a hint of realism. Life doesn’t hand everything to Eva on a silver platter. With her adoptive father becoming ill, she has financial and social challenges to deal with. Her relationships with colleagues and their significant others lead to both envy and admiration. But there’s no stopping her. She starts an exciting new enterprise, serving fancy dinner parties that prove to be a great success. The trick is she keeps moving forward regardless of the status quo. Hence, while reading this entertaining book I was reminded of a stellar quote by American actor and comedian Milton Berle: ‘If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door’.
Stradal’s novel is a vibrant delight to read, brimming with music and the scents of homemade cooking. When flipping through its pages, expect to see in your mind’s eye the exotic shades of tomatoes (and learn about its numerous varieties!). The novel contains recipes from the author’s childhood, taken from the First Lutheran Church Women cookbook, alongside a handful of diet plans and menus. Although this novel would be ideal for all those who have an appetite for food and fiction, you don’t really have to be a connoisseur to enjoy the good things in life.