Reviewing Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
It happens a couple times a year that you come across a book that hits all the right notes and leaves you wandering around the house afterward wondering what you do with yourself now that you are finished with it. I found myself in this state of ennui last night after finishing J. Ryan Stradal’s extraordinary foodie novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
Eva Thorvald has a gift. Her palate is beyond compare and her intelligence and taste are exceptional. Throughout the novel the reader spies on Eva as she matures in her taste and understanding of ingredients. From walleye caught and grilled directly after, to the perfect variety of heirloom tomato, and corn fresh off the stalk, the novel follows a young woman who becomes a legend in the food world. Eva eventually runs a dinner club whose waiting list is hundreds deep and so secret that it changes location. The final chapter in the novel reveals Eva’s true prowess and brings all the ingredients that have shaped her young life together.
Each chapter of the novel is from a different perspective. From her father, to her, her cousin, a boyfriend, and then people she has brief encounters with. The novel moves from direct contact and insight into our main character to a distant glimpses of her. It is a wonderful set up to reflect how elusive and legendary she becomes. Likewise, the ingredients and dishes featured in each chapter build up. Each of them eventually make their way into the dinner at the end of the book and are a reflection of who our chef is. They are a testament to the foodie world and how different people look at food and utilize it. One story of a woman who makes contest winning peanut butter bars then takes them to a competition where all the other recipes state where the ingredients are sourced from is the perfect example of the clash of cultures.
Underneath all the food and ingredients that marry the novel together is the story of individual struggles and characters that are beautifully flawed. Often when reading books that diverge from the main character’s side, I get upset because I’ve formed a relationship with that person, but I found myself digging into each new chapter with vigor, wanting only to consume a new person’s story.
Pick this novel up. Read it with a glass of wine, iced tea, or a sandwich (you’re going to want to eat/drink something tasty while reading it), and revel in the perfect marriage of ingredients that J. Ryan Stradal lays before you.