I really had no idea what to expect when I started author J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Would it be a story about cooking? Would there be recipes? Would it be restaurant reviews for Midwest eateries? What I didn’t actually expect, however, was that it would be such a charming and wonderful story that yes, involves cooking, but mostly involved family dynamics. I absolutely LOVED this book.
It is the story of Eva Thorvald, abandoned as an infant by a mother who preferred devoting her life to being a sommelier rather than a wife and parent. Eva’s doting father, who was himself a chef, began developing Eva’s palate shortly after her birth. Unfortunately, he died soon after Eva’s mother left, leaving her to be reared by kind and loving relatives.
Eva has a gifted palate, beginning at a young age when she began growing and then selling chocolate habanero peppers. Eventually, Eva grows to become a gifted chef with a very unusual way of offering her food.
The storyline seems mundane; however, the way the author chose to tell the story was, in my opinion, ever so creative and clever.
The book consists of 8 chapters, each which could nearly stand as a short story in itself. The main character of each chapter is not Eva, but someone who has a tie to Eva in some way. Via those vignettes, the reader learns about Eva and how she becomes who she is, a good and kind person and an amazing and creative chef.
The entire story takes place in – you guessed it – the Midwest. The story begins in Minnesota, but parts of it take place in South Dakota and Iowa. As such, the reader becomes familiar with a lot of the peculiarities of Midwest cooking. And Midwest people. I’m not from Minnesota, but I would imagine that Minnesotans would be greatly amused by this description of Eva’s grandparents: Theirs was a mixed-race marriage – between a Norwegian and a Dane – and thus all things culturally important to one but not the other were given a free pass and critiqued only in unmixed company. Like lutefisk, which, according to the novel, is whitefish that is bounded, dried, soaked in lye, resoaked in cold water, and ends up looking like jellied smog and smelling like boiled aquarium water.
The book does contain some recipes, but not regularly, such as at the end of each chapter. When it comes to food, the book shines in its descriptions of the art of simple cooking using fresh ingredients. But I will tell you right now that thoughI am someone who likes to cook, and therefore enjoyed the recipes and descriptions of food, mostly I loved the clever story-telling, and the main character, Eva.
The book, my friends, is currently selling for a mere $3.99 on Kindle, and I encourage you to buy it!