By J. Ryan Stradal
Viking. 312 pp. $25
J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” is a culinary journey through his homeland. Stradal captures the region’s patois and traditions, such as cutthroat Lutheran church bake-offs and teenage boys forced to make pungent Scandinavian lutefisk, but he also chronicles the rise of the heartland’s foodie culture. Ultimately, “Kitchens” reveals the strong interplay among food, family and our most cherished memories.
The novel’s heart is Eva Thorvald, a plucky, food-loving girl who grows up to become America’s most sought-after chef. Through the perspective of different characters over eight linked stories, “Kitchens” describes Eva’s unlikely trajectory to culinary stardom.
Eva’s role shifts depending on which character steers a particular tale. In one, she is the object of affection; in others, she bears contempt, envy or admiration. Stradal suggests that love — or the absence of love — is the most powerful condition of all.
In the first chapter, Lars Thorvald, a hapless but legendary small-town chef, is wholly dedicated to seasoning Eva’s palate, spending the weeks before her birth coming up with a menu highlighting pureed pulled pork and olive tapenade for her first few months. When Cynthia, Eva’s mother, falls in love with a dashing sommelier, Lars is left to raise baby Eva on his own. Yet Stradal maintains a cheerful tone, even in the novel’s darker moments. Lars understands his wife’s abandonment and explains to his baffled family: “What’s more selfish? Working a job you hate just to come home and be an exhausted, frustrated, unhappy mom? Or following your dreams and becoming a successful woman that our daughter could feel proud of?”
In the next chapter, “Chocolate Habanero,” we find that circumstances have turned Eva into a precocious preteen, unaware of her early foodie imprinting or real parentage. She is being raised by her poor but loving relatives in Iowa. She grows peppers from the cloister of her bedroom, obliterating her taste buds with their heat as a way to douse her angst. Her first restaurant job, supplying a local Mexican establishment with chili powders and oils, teaches her the value of a dollar, as well as the effectiveness of chili powder as a weapon against bullies: “She curled her hot, swollen lips over her teeth to fight back the smile and look contrite. There was no going back from this — she had just pushed her life forward in a particular direction. . . . So while the phone rang at her mom’s work, she leaned back in her chair, listened to the astonishing sounds of justice, and no longer pretended to look sorry.”
In these early portraits, the book is at its best: a tender coming-of-age story with a mix of finely rendered pathos and humor. Until the concluding chapter, in which Eva is owner of America’s most exclusive supper club, the tone becomes cooler, more jaded, and we are introduced to characters taking stock of real or imagined losses. With this movement through time, Stradal also depicts the emergence of our modern, constantly curating and critiquing foodie culture. One chapter, “Bars,” is a long tribute to the county fair, but Stradal subjects church bakers and dogmatic locavores to the same cutting treatment. (Because recipes are included, you’ll have a chance to try Marshmallow Butter Bars.)
Even if Eva’s stellar rise is somewhat unbelievable — her supper club is $5,000 a head with a wait list of 295 years — “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” is a unique and pleasurable reading experience. As Stradal lets Eva’s life unfold, we learn she’s a tough, persevering and kind young woman who shows gratitude for everyone involved in her food universe.
This is a story of humble beginnings, mixed-up middles and unresolved endings, a story of how culinary greatness can take place in a single father’s kitchen or in a $5,000-meal restaurant. Both, Stradal suggests, should be treated with the same reverence. After all, aren’t we always trying to recover those first and most impressionable bites — the ones that taste of home, of a meal prepared by those who loved us most?
Nora Pouillon is the founder of Restaurant Nora and the author of “My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today.” She will be at the National Book Festival in Washington on Sept. 5. Shawn Willis is Pouillon’s assistant.