Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Pub. Date: July 28, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Pamela Dorman Books!)
Summary: 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.
Genre: Adult, Contemporary, Fiction
Recommended for: Food lovers! Readers curious about an interesting and innovative format where recipes tell the story
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a book that has been on my radar for what seems like ages. The minute I first became aware of it I knew it was something I needed to read and have been itching to get my hands on a copy. Not only does the novel revolve around food, but this debut has been getting a ton of pre-publication buzz from some pretty noteworthy people/places.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest tells the story of Eva Thorvald, from birth through adolescence and into adulthood, all the while never showing the tale through her eyes. Instead, each chapter focuses on a different character at a different point in Eva’s life and the dish that links the pair, starting with ‘Lutefisk,’ very much her father’s story, going back through generations and essentially setting the scene for what’s to come. Namely, food and a passion for it.
When tragedy strikes baby Eva, her life carries on in Minnesota. As a teen she grows and cultivates chocolate habanero peppers in her bedroom, increasing her tolerance for spice (and pain) which ultimately leads to a pretty amusing (and badass) method of revenge for some schoolyard bullies…and also turns out to be an excellent way to make a quick buck. With each passing year, Eva’s talent in the kitchen grows until she’s prominently featured on all the up-and-coming blogs, eventually rising to elite status with her super exclusive, $1,000-a-course dinners in extreme locations. Anyone who is anyone is on the wait list…including the woman who abandoned Eva as a baby all those years ago.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a light-hearted, quick read that was character-driven (my fav) and revolved around food (my other fav.) Total Leah win here! Because each chapter is told from a different perspective (an ex-boyfriend, a jealous rival, a cousin) I had assumed there would be a different take on Eva, that someone who knew her better would have a deeper, more authentic look into her character while someone who barely spoke with her would have only the barest of whispers to say. Instead, Eva is presented the same in everyone’s eyes: tall, blonde, and wholly likable (even the rival comes around eventually.) That said, when the biggest complaint a reader has is that the main character was too nice, I suppose you’ve done something right, so bravo, Mr. Stradal!
The recipes really further the story, from what was supposed to be Eva’s first food (pureed pork shoulder and carrot cake) to French onion soup (cooking is an excellent way to impress a girl, boys!) to a prize-winning County Fair dessert (which catches Eva’s eye and soon becomes one of the $1000 dishes.) While none of them are particularly new or eye-opening, they’re recipes everyone is familiar with and their addition made the story that much more enjoyable for me. The book club kit includes several others, each quintessentially Midwestern (Wisconsin Sushi, anyone?) and also features a Q&A with Stradal for more foodie talk!
While you don’t necessarily have to be a foodie to appreciate Kitchens of the Great Midwest it certainly heightens the enjoyment, but its easy breezy pace and short story-esque format are sure to please readers across the board. With a debut like this I’m excited to see where Stradal goes next!