Oh my god. This book. This book. I was glued to it. Reading this book, I was like Belle from the opening of Beauty and the Beast, my nose in the book as I navigated the subways and streets of New York City, to read about people in the often forgotten middle states of the country.
So what is Kitchens of the Great Midwest about? To be honest, I expected some sort of sappy chick-lit or some sort of food-study. Instead, we have a story that leads us through decades of life in the midwest, with many characters that are familiar tropes without being stereotypical, and all connecting back to Eva, a young woman whose unique palate leads her to becoming the star chef of the country.
It begins when Eva is a baby, and her father Lars is trying to figure out how to feed her braised pork shoulder, you know, to get her taste for good food going. Her mother Cynthia decides to decides to run off with a wine sommelier and Lars is left on his own to raise their daughter. Eva grows up, learning about food, and each recipe plays a formative chapter in her life.
Each chapter is told by a different character, with a focus on a different dish. Eva’s culinary journey is told in vivid snapshots into these character’s lives—her first boyfriend, her father, her cousin—and the characters are as delectable as the dishes. Not that they’re all good people, but they’re all very real. Which is like the food; not all of it sounds appealing, but it certainly is very Midwest, from the Scandinavian lutefisk to the belt-popping dessert bars.
There is a beautiful convergence of characters in the final chapter, and an especially funny coincidence. The characters who narrate the first and final chapters make for oddly appropriate bookends of the story. Food and how it brings people together, creates memories, identities, and communities within people. It’s a quirky, evocative, and often funny story, that weaves a journey through life and the coincidental connections that happen, and the near-misses too. Without being saccharine, it manages to tell a story of what normal people will do for one another, with some good food along the way.
I was lucky enough to read this book before it came out, and it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s one of those books that is sad to finish, because I missed the characters immediately after. This is J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel and I’m excited to see what he writes next. (And he’s a native Minnesotan so there’s that note of authenticity!). Do yourself a favor and read this one. It’ll surprise you.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest was published on July 28th by Pamela Dornan Books.
Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.