Margin Notes: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Kitchens of the Great Midwest 

by J. Ryan Stradal

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.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I so enjoyed this unexpectedly special book. I highly recommend it, particularly to those who love food (like me) or who are nostalgic about the food of the midwest (not me), or just interested in beautiful, well thought out, well written books (me!). I'm so glad my friend Ruth recommended this one!

It tells the story of Eva, our heroine, a girl born to a mother who didn't want to be a mother, a sommelier, and a father, a chef, who was desperate to be a father. It follows her as she grows up (view spoiler) and becomes a world famous chef.

The structure of the book is interesting--each section is told from a different perspective. A boyfriend, a parent, a cousin, a future collaborator, someone who influenced her or witnessed part of her life. That could be a structure that goes wrong, but here, it really shined. Through the subtle story that at times focuses on Eva and at other times focuses on people flitting at the perimeter of her story, you get a wonderful portrait of her skill, her personality, her hopes and her trials. As she grows up, a kind of oddly shaped girl (tall, different than other girls in high school), with interests in food and taste, it's wonderful to see how her personality is shaped and not soured, despite bullying and mean people around her.

In the second half of the book she almost disappears from view--the portrait of her comes from chance encounters, people who aren't as close to her, and fewer stories about her one-on-one interaction. But still... still we get to peek in at Eva and see her grow and become more and more successful--it's artfully done.

The culmination of the book--the last chapter--the meal that showed Eva's heart, was amazing--how it referenced the portrait the author had painted of her. It was done subtly and beautifully, and when you realized one thing it made you look harder for the others. It required a closer look and I loved that. (view spoiler)

I didn't try any of the recipes included in this book, but I wish I had! Maybe in the future.

The writing is so special--there are so many quotes that illustrate something in an absolutely beautiful, compelling, new way, I left them for the end so you can skip them if you want, but don't. I wish I could write like this!
"When Lars first held her, his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread, and he would never get it back. When mother and baby were asleep in the hospital room, he went out to the parking lot, sat in his Dodge Omni, and cried like a man who had never wanted anything in his life until now."
"She hated those boys and knew that they were stupid and hence their opinions were baseless and the impact of their lives on the planet would be measured only in undifferentiated emissions of methane and nitrates . . . but still."
"Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most."
"Yes, he just wanted her to want to be a mom, in the same way that he felt, with all of his blood, that he was a dad first, and everything else in the world an obscure, unfathomably distant second."
"They were generous in the way of people running a garage sale who give things away to the folks who come at the end."
"Eva knew that her mom hadn’t gotten the vegan sorbet because it was too expensive. In their home, cost was the main reason why something good didn’t happen."
"Their thing was that they played sad cowboy music, and played cover songs in the style of sad cowboy music. Their cover of “No Diggity” was off the chain! It made hot girls forget you were a dork, which is the point of all music."
"Yes, the dish was flawless, and the wine pairing was supernatural, but these people were out of control. Were they trying to emotionally justify the meal’s price tag? Did they have too many cocktails in the drinks tent? It was a breathtaking meal, one of the best that Cindy had ever had, but the hysteria around her was making her brain red."
"He sometimes talked about her as if her death were a jackknifed semi on the road ahead. Will viewed it more like the giant crack in their concrete driveway; he felt it, saw it, and walked over it every day, but it was too big and strange to fix."

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