Monday, January 22, 2018

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Published July 2015 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: purchased for my Nook

Publisher's Summary:
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a novel about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation.

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 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.

My Thoughts:
This is one of those books that came onto my radar, got added to my TBR list, and then I completely forgot what it was about. Except, of course, for the obvious title. Even when I chose it for my book club to read, I didn't really delve too much into what it was about (which is risky, I'll admit!). I like to read books that way; it helps me not have any expectations.

As it turns out, that's was a good thing. Kitchens of The Great Midwest made several best-of lists in 2015; had I read it right away, I would have been expected great things. But I can almost guarantee that it will not make my best-of list for 2018. Which doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it; I did and I was perfectly happy with it because I didn't have too high of expectations.

Kitchens of The Great Midwest is not so much a novel as it is a series of interrelated short stories. Every story centers on one character and one food, with Eva playing some role in every story. Even so, in the end I felt like I didn't know Eva as well as I knew all of the other characters we'd met along the way; she remains something of an enigma. On the other hand, some of the secondary characters really came alive, including one of my favorites, Pat Prager, a small-town, church-going second wife who constantly struggles to live the Christian life she espouses.

I read this with my book club and it was a book nearly everyone did finish and enjoy (although not everyone enjoyed the ending). There were stories in the book that reminded us of other books, there were stories that made us cheer (Chocolate Habeneros with its great revenge and girl power!), and stories that made us sad. For a midwest guy, though, Stradal doesn't actually seem to think much of most of the people who live in middle America. Maybe that had more to do with the food stories he wanted to tell than the people he was writing about.

Stradal is a man who understands the power of food and the ways it can bring out both the best and the worst in people. He is an equal opportunity mocker of traditional comfort "church" food and the "foodies" who often treat food as its own religion. He absolutely made me want to get in the kitchen with a little voice in one year telling me to get rid of all of the less than wholesome things in there and another voice telling me to bake some bars immediately. I certainly can't wait for the farmer's markets to arrive again! And that I have already made Pat Prager's bars.

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