Of tater tot casserole and wilted kale salad: Kitchens Of the Great Midwest (review)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Netgalley)
J. Ryan Stradal
Viking

Sometimes my husband and I play “Do you remember eating … ?” We both grew up in the Midwest and church supper casseroles and desserts, as well as our own moms’ cooking, provide plenty of fodder. Do you remember … Tater tot casserole? Chocolate éclair dessert (known in some circles as Better Than Sex!)? Fried bologna sandwiches? Tuna and noodles? Jello salads of all varieties? Mock chicken legs?

We’ve come a long way, baby, which is why “Do you remember eating … ?” is so much fun. Several Kitchens of the Great Midwestyears ago we went clean and local–or as local as one can be when the growing season is all of four or five months. We cut out (or tried to) anything packaged with ingredients we couldn’t pronounce. Five ingredients or less. We joined a CSA and found a source for meat that was humanly raised. Everything we were “supposed” to do. We like restaurants that are farm to table. You know, garlic ramps and kale and charred corn pudding. (You get the idea.) And don’t get me wrong—I think it’s more healthful and more responsible to eat this way. But sometimes my mouth waters for a good old-fashioned casserole with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions.

Ryan Stradal touches the worlds of both the church lady and the new foodie in his first novel Kitchens Of the Great Midwest. Lars Thorvald loved food—real food—and two women: his daughter and his wife. Raised in Duluth, Minnesota, he and his brother were charged with making the annual batch of lutefisk to sell to his father’s bakery customers during Advent. The memory of that odious task stirred Lars to seek out fresh tomatoes, basil, sweet corn—indeed, fresh everything–when he finally became a chef. Wife Cynthia loved wines and together they made a dynamic pair (or so Lars thought) at their small restaurant. When Cynthia becomes pregnant, Lars dreams of the foods he’ll cook for their little one and when he holds daughter Eva for the first time, “his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread.”

But tragedy strikes. Not once or even twice, but three times and Eva’s world is irrevocably changed. In grade school Eva discovers she is gifted at growing chiles, and, coincidentally, can also withstand the heat of even the most potent chiles. Money is tight at home—Eva comes from the other side of the tracks, kids think she is odd. She’s bullied. Gains confidence. Teenage Eva has an incredibly developed palate and starts to hang around restaurant kitchens. Stradal moves quickly through the years, leaping from Eva age eight to sixteen to twenty.

Then after three chapters centered on Eva, I was reading about some chick named Octavia, and Eva was merely a character in the background. I was confused. The next chapter was about a hunter named Jordy whose mother was dying and I was confused even more. Then a chapter on a church lady who won contests for her famous cookie bars …

I was frustrated. I flipped back through the pages. Did I miss a name? Did I miss a connection between Eva and these other people? I ended up deciding I liked the flavor of the plot, so I finally just gave up trying to figure out the structure of the novel, trying to force it into my notion of how a narrative should be composed—and the story came together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Or “wilted kale with sweet pepper jelly vinaigrette”.

In fact, I loved the way Kitchens was written so much, I just might go back for a second helping and read it again. You won’t be disappointed.

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