Friday, July 31, 2015
Guest Book Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
So often, we are told that we shouldn’t let food define us. We hear constantly from health professionals, media outlets, friends and family that we cannot be slaves to our appetites, that we must try to find non-food-centered means of celebrating, of communing, of commiserating. Conventional wisdom complains that we have become a culture too obsessed with food, that it’s time to back up and regroup. In his new book, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal asserts a different view, bucking this trend of shame and deprivation. Instead, with persuasive wit and grace, he exalts food, and the foodies too.
In this delightfully absorbing debut novel, Stradal has created a meandering saga about one girl’s inauspicious arrival as an infant, and her slow but consistent rise from orphaned baby to world-renowned, supreme, mysterious, celebrity chef. With a deft hand, Stradal employs multiple players to tell the story of a central captivating character, Eva Thorvald. Through vignette-style chapters, each of which seems to focus on a different person, Stradal manages to paint a thorough picture of Eva. Each section highlights not only a person who has somehow been relevant to Eva’s journey through life, but also a specific dish that has had great significance for her at a pivotal moment in her personal development.
In the first chapter, which focuses on her father, Lars, the reader learns that Eva’s mother abandoned her, as well as Lars, shortly after Eva’s birth. Feeling she simply was not cut out to raise a child, Eva’s mother left her family in Minnesota and relocated to California wine country. Eva’s father immediately dedicated himself to raising his daughter, but sadly, he collapsed from a fatal heart attack while she was still an infant. Eva is instead raised by her Aunt Finoa and Uncle Jarl, who decide to pose as her birth parents. The reader learns fairly early in the story that Eva is unusually astute, with an exceptionally large vocabulary for a child her age, a highly discerning palate and penchant for very spicy peppers. It’s not long before she’s onto her aunt and uncle’s ruse.
As Eva ages, we see her as a tormented middle schooler. Notably, this is the only chapter where she is the ostensible “main character”. After Eva gets in trouble at school for exacting revenge on a few bullies, the narrator moves on and begins to follow the storyline of other characters. Only after considering these subsequent chapters together will readers realize that they’ve been reading Eva’s story all along. On this seemingly desultory journey, Stradal depicts Eva’s cousin Braque at college, but then Eva comes for a visit. Next is a chapter about the tormented teenage boy who is suffering from unrequited love. It turns out that the object of his affection is Eva. As the book progresses, the characters’ connections to Eva become increasingly attenuated, ranging from a wannabe yuppie who happens to be in a cooking club that Eva joins to a struggling youth whose brother’s girlfriend makes a cameo appearance: Eva. Each time it seems that Eva couldn’t possibly be connected to the character at a chapter’s center, Stradal uses skillful sleight of hand to reveal the relationship he has concocted.
As Stradal depicts Eva’s rise to culinary fame, he also manages to tell an additional story. The dishes that Eva cooks and eats throughout the novel do their own work towards the story’s development. They paint a picture of Eva as an unparalleled cook and also a complex but much loved character. Moreover, the foods Stradal describes provide surprisingly insightful socio-economic commentary. He uses food and recipes as shorthand to reveal moral character and social status. When he introduces characters who have created a raw organic no-bake chocolate torte, readers will know exactly what type of people they are dealing with. For Eva in particular, food becomes a way of anchoring herself and keeping a clear head when other parts of the world cease to make sense.
In addition to these food-related story elements, Stradal also peppers full-length recipes throughout the book. At times, the plotline of the novel is simply too engrossing for one to stop and consider the ratios of butter to sugar that have been laid out in painstaking detail, but surely each recipe is worth returning to and sampling after finishing the story. It becomes increasingly apparent that for Eva Thorvald, food is thoroughly tied up with emotion, and that the ingredients in a dish can become the most effective manner of expressing herself. Stradel shows Eva using food as such an effective interpersonal tool that the reader can’t help but wonder if we’ve been wrong about food all along. In Stradal’s world, where characters use food to overcome obstacles, to communicate, to relate to each other, food is the great connector, a universal language, and especially, a way of defining oneself.
Just like the dishes that Eva enjoys, Stradal presents multiple stories throughout this book that enhance the flavor of the novel as a whole, like a single grand feast. With ample helpings of family drama, teenage angst, enduring friendship and confusing romance, this book will satisfy a wide array of appetites and should not be missed.
Thanks to Penguin Random House for the book in exchange for an honest review. They have an online book club kit you can use if your club is reading this novel.
Jacqueline Berkell Friedland is currently an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she is studying fiction. She is a former attorney and law school professor. When she is not writing, Jacqueline can be found plowing through novels or chasing after her four young children.