When J. Ryan Stradal set out to write the book he wanted to read, he didn’t consider his current home for its setting. Instead, he took a hiatus from his job as an L.A.-based supervising producer on shows like Storage Wars and Deadliest Catch to revisit the communities and cuisines of his upbringing, about 2,000 miles northeast in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is the result: a delectable debut garnished with love, loss, and lutefisk; a homage to food, family, and growing up in Hastings, Minnesota.
“Hastings did not have an organic section at the grocery store—I don’t think I saw an avocado until I moved to California. Now every time I return to Minnesota, I see more and more emphasis on bespoke dining, locavorism, and thoughtful culinary experiences,” Stradal says. “I wanted to write a story about someone who comes of age with the contemporary culinary scene, who’s born in the era I grew up in, which stands in very sharp contrast to what we’re in now.”
Eighties baby Eva Thorvald is the only child of lutefisk prodigy and regionally acclaimed chef Lars Thorvald and aspiring sommelier Cynthia Hargreaves. Kitchens of the Great Midwest charts her rise to international celebrity chefdom through the shifting perspectives of family, friends, colleagues and competitors—beginning with her doting dad.
Lars is the first to nurture Eva’s natural gifts, devising a tasting menu to develop her palate: Week one—guacamole, puréed prunes and hummus. Week sixteen—pork shoulder and Mom’s Carrot Cake. Thankfully, he has the good Midwestern sense to run it by the obstetrician first:
In his office, Dr. Latch listened to Lars’s question and then looked at the young man the way someone might regard a toddler who’s holding a Buck knife.
‘You want to feed carrot cake to a four-month-old?’ Dr. Latch asked.
‘Not a lot of carrot cake,’ Lars said. ‘I mean, a small portion. A baby portion. I’m just concerned about the nuts in the recipe. I mean, I guess I could make it without nuts. But my mom always made it with nuts. What do you think?’
‘Eighteen months. At the earliest. Probably wait until age two to be safe.’
‘I could be wrong, but I remember my younger siblings eating carrot cake really young. There’s a picture of my brother Jarl on the day he turned one. They gave him a little carrot cake and he smeared it in his hair.’
‘That’s the best outcome in that situation, probably.’
‘Well, now he’s bald.’
One early tragedy of Eva’s life is that she’ll grow up without knowing this man. Neither will she know her mother. As cousin Braque discloses when Eva is 11 years old, “There was an agreement among the family never to discuss Eva’s origin; her birth mother was apparently the worst woman in world history,” Stradal writes. But in addition to her talents for chile-growing and discerning the minutest traces of seasonings in a dish, the girl exhibits great pluck.
“Growing up in the Midwest, I feel like there’s a certain community in shared suffering and compromise,” Stradal says. “I remember when I was 12 years old, and the nursing home behind our house burned down, and they interviewed one of the women that lived at the nursing home, who had lost everything—everything she had winnowed down to keep in that small unit, all the stuff that was most important to her, that she wanted to look at every day, and they asked her, ‘So, how do you feel?’ and she was like, ‘Well’—and she was laughing—and she said, ‘Well, if you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you either laugh or die.’ That really stuck with me, and I’ve thought about that a lot since. That’s a great attitude, and it’s an attitude that I see reflected in a lot of Midwesterners,” he says.
Eva isn’t the only one challenged in Kitchens of the Great Midwest. From Jordy, a troubled young man caring for his terminally ill mother, to Pat Prager, the reigning Lutheran women’s bar cookie baking champion, Stradal’s Midwesterners face down their fates with resoluteness—recipes (included)—and a dollop of drollness.
“I wanted to write a story that my mom would have liked,” Stradal says. “She died 10 years ago, but she’s the reason I’m a writer. She taught me to read at a young age and filled the house with books and raised me with a really profound love for literature and had me think at a very young age, five or six, that the best thing you could do in life would be to write a book—that would be the pinnacle of human expression.
“I’ve worked pieces of myself into all these characters, and overall it was a lot of fun, even though it was sad, sometimes, to come up with these wonderful people and just torture them,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.