Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

by J. Ryan Stradal
Pamela Dorman Books     2015
320 pages     Fiction

From the moment I saw the title, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I knew I had to read it. Then, in the very first chapter, we meet Lars Thorvald who works at the family bakery, Gustaf's and Sons in Duluth, Minnesota. Now, you must know that I grew up in Duluth and went to Duluth East High School with two cousins, Gail and Gretchen Gustafson, whose fathers owned Gustafson's Bakery. When I read Gustaf's and Sons bakery—I was hooked. This author knew my life story!

Lars marries a woman named Cynthia and they have a baby daughter named Eva. Lars wants to make Eva appreciate the best in food, so the first chapter is devoted to the types of food he plans to feed this much wanted child—wanted by him, at any rate. Cynthia soon finds that she is not cut out to be a mother, and leaves Lars and baby Eva for a career as a sommelier. The novel, then is the story of Eva's life and the people who are connected to her—sometimes only peripherally. Eva carries on her father's fascination with food, moving quickly from lutefisk to hot peppers to world class cuisine. Each chapter is almost a stand-alone story. Sometimes Eva plays a large role in the story; sometimes she hardly appears at all. The New York Times reviewer calls this an "impressive feat of narrative jujitsu".

This s just the bare bones description  of a novel that almost defies description. The format is so unique, both poignant and hilariously funny on the same page. Eva and food are the links that hold the entire enterprise together. The food is wondrous. From Lars making the lutefisk in the first chapter to walleye, casseroles, and the wine and food culture that is invading even the Upper Midwest. My favorite chapter concerns devoutly religious Pat and the Lutheran ladies who take their bar cookies to a competition judged by Eva, by now a famous chef. This is one story line that you almost have to be a Lutheran from Minnesota to appreciate fully. Pat is a character right out of Prairie Home Companion

Nothing that I can say can truly do Kitchens of the Great Midwest justice. It is just a great send up of the Midwest, of foodie culture, and of bar cookies made of peanut butter, caramels, and chocolate chips. The characters are wonderful creations, the plot contorted, and the landscape totally unique. Stradal knows these people.  Be prepared to laugh and love!

The review in the New York Times.
J. Ryan Stradal's website.

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