Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books (July 28, 2015)
Amazon Book Description: Kitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer’s most hotly-anticipated debut.
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.
Reading Sara Review: This book was such a fun treat that it only took me two days to read (though I wish it had taken longer because I loved it!). Great Kitchens of the Midwest tells the story of Eva, who has an incredible passion for cooking and a palate that comes “once in a lifetime.” The story is told in such a unique way that I simply could not put it down. Eva’s life story is told only once through her own eyes and instead is mostly told through other people, some who meet her only briefly (but perhaps come back in the end, you will have to remember some names!), and some who clearly have deeper connections with her. In this way, you watch Eva grow up and develop into a person that you cheer for to succeed – you worry about her struggles with bullying as an adolescent, you cannot believe that she can eat such spicy food at a young age – and you watch her come into her own as a chef. The end was touching, surprising and left me wanting more resolution, but sort of happy that it is left to the reader’s imagination.
I loved Stradal’s writing style. While the chapter featuring Broque, Eva’s cousin, was hard to read, he captured her personality (a very angry college freshman girl) in a way that made you cringe – in good way. The writing took on each character with fervor and helped the reader become invested in each part of Eva’s life. I look forward to more books by J. Ryan Stradal to see his writing continue in this interesting and unique way and evolve even further.
The concept of Eva’s pop-up restaurant was intriguing, and a creative way to showcase her own personal creativity as a chef. It represented what and who she was passionate about in a way that no normal restaurant could do. Even though this book is about Eva, she is still a little mysterious to the reader since we do not always read from her POV. The pop-up restaurant concept fits within this well, because it was always a mystery – what people she chose to attend the gatherings, what food would be served and where. And it certainly left me dreaming of her food (and knowing that even if was real, I could not afford the $10,000 meal price tag!).
The Midwest in and of itself was an influential character in this novel. It shaped who Eva met through her youth and her frequent moves. It also clearly influenced her food, her tastes, and what flavors she explored at different points in her life.
Oh, and did I mention that there are recipes that guide each chapter? I am positive that I cannot master the recipes in the way that Eva or Lars could have, but it can certainly make for an entertaining culinary adventure. This book was a fun way to explore the prominent foodie culture in America, while telling an excellent story of a young girl, who grows into an indescribable woman, and how some things are meant to happen through chance, whether we are ready for it or not.
Wine Recommendation: I am not a sommelier, but reading this book and trying to match the incredible recipes with wine sounds like an adventure to me! Unfortunately, I have zero training in that – am only trained in enjoying wine and enjoying reading. So instead, I am going to recommend a wonderful summer white that may or may not go with what you are making, but is still a delicious wine that I think you will enjoy. Benessere Vineyards in Napa Valley, like this book, is a treasure. I have been twice, and both times am mesmerized by the beautiful scenery (grapes & vines, obviously) and the kind winemakers. I think that they do Italian varieties the best, and recommend their Pinot Grigio (about $22). With hints of fruit and lemongrass, this will pair well with whatever dish you decide to make from the book (maybe, because again, I’m not a sommelier, so I do not really know).