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Kitchens of the Great Midwest

  • Paperback $16.00

    Jun 07, 2016 | 320 Pages

  • Ebook $11.99

    Jul 28, 2015 | 320 Pages

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Praise

“An impressive feat of narrative jujitsu. . . that keeps readers turning the pages too fast to realize just how ingenious they are.”—The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Pick

“This is a book that made me want to have a more full and colorful life, a life with cookbooks and a well-used kitchen, and to delight at all the goodness that can be put in front of us.”—Los Angeles Review of Books

“A sweet and savory treat.” People

“The author’s gentle skewering of foodie snobs (from county fair doyennes to the vegan/gluten-free/soy-free police) is spot on, and the blend of humor, warmth, and longing that he uses to portray family relationships make the book insightful and endearing. Savor it page by page.”—Oprah.com

“Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle – not only success, but also considerable irony, a fair amount of wisdom and a decent meal.”—Jane Smiley, The Guardian

“Warning: this will make you hungry. . . . You won’t be able to put it down. And it will up your kitchen game.”—The Skimm

“Garrison Keillor’s got nothing on [J. Ryan Stradal]!”‘Here and Now’, NPR

“A tender coming-of-age story with a mix of finely rendered pathos and humor.”—Washington Post

“Stradal’s debut novel tackles foodie culture with all the finesse of a pastry chef…Reading Kitchens is all pleasure.” —LA Magazine

“[A] captivating debut novel. . . as surprising and satisfying as a great meal.”—Tampa Bay Times

“Foodies and those who love contemporary literature will devour this novel that is being compared to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. A standout.” —Library Journal (starred review)

[Kitchens of the Great Midwest is] the first novel about the emergence and current state of foodie culture… Fundamentally, [it’s] about what happens when opposing personalities coexist: those who bake with real butter versus those who don’t, those who obsess over heirloom tomatoes alongside those who don’t even know what they are. It uses these categories as a way to look at one of the most confusing, liberating truths there is, which is that often the people we think we’re the least like are the ones we end up needing the most.” –Book Forum 

“[A] delicious debut from Stradal.. . Food and family intertwine in this promising debut that features triumph, heartbreak, and even recipes.”—Kirkus

“Stradal’s first novel is a refreshing and brisk read, with a sophisticated sense of such glories of foodie culture as open-pollinated heirloom corn, pan-seared Walleye and Caesar Cardini’s original Caesar Salad.”BBC.com


“Stradal’s debut is charming, rife with hardy, self-deprecating humor, but in Kitchens of the Great Midwest [Stradal] really proves his mettle as a novelist to look out for.”—Bustle.com 

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a big-hearted, funny, and class-transcending pleasure. It’s also both a structural and empathetic tour de force, stepping across worlds in the American midwest, and demonstrating with an enviable tenderness and ingenuity the tug of war between our freedom to pursue our passions and our obligations to those we love.” —Jim Shepard, author of Project X and National Book Award finalist Like You’d Understand, Anyway

“Tender, funny, and moving, J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel made me crave my mother’s magic cookie bars…and every good tomato I’ve ever had the privilege of eating. Kitchens of the Great Midwest manages to be at once sincere yet sharply observed, thoughtful yet swiftly paced, and the lives of its fallible, realistic, and complicated characters mattered to me deeply. It’s a fantastic book.”— Edan Lepucki, bestselling author of California

 
“In Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a charming, fast-moving round robin tale of food, sensuality and Midwestern culture, Mr. Stradal has delivered one extremely tasty, well-seasoned debut in what is sure to be a long and savory career.”—Janet Fitch, author White Oleander
 
“From the quite literally burning passions of a lonely eleven-year-old girl with an exceptional palate, to the ethical dilemmas behind a batch of Blue Ribbon Peanut Butter Bars, J. Ryan Stradal writes with a special kind of meticulous tenderness—missing nothing and accepting everything. A superbly gratifying debut.”—Meg Howrey, author of The Crane’s Dance
 
“An impossible-to-put-down, one-of-a-kind novel. The prose is beautiful, the characters memorable, and the plot is surprising at every turn. I have never read a book quite like this—and neither, I’ll bet, have you. This stunning debut announces J. Ryan Stradal as a first-rate voice in American fiction. This is a wildly creative, stunningly original, and very moving novel. I can’t wait to see what Stradal does next.”— Rob Roberge, author of The Cost of Living
 
“A Great American Novel in the fullest sense of the term. Everything you want a book to be.”—Ben Loory, author of Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day
 


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

1.  What inspired the story of Eva Thorvald?

Many things—perhaps too many to list here—but chief among them is the fact that I relate to her childhood. Like her, I was a child with passionate interests, and I didn’t often have many people with whom I could share them. I depended on concerned adults—in my case, the teachers and librarians at school—for guidance. I know what it’s like to be driven by obsessions not shared by my classmates, and what it’s like to be bullied on the school bus, though in the latter case I never did experience anything like Eva’s satisfying revenge.

Much of the details of her adult life as a chef were influenced by the time I’ve spent with Patricia Clark and Amy Schabert Kovacs, two culinary professionals I have the honor of calling dear friends. They also taught me a lot about the life of a chef behind the scenes, some of which made it into Eva’s story.

2.  You’ve chosen to tell this novel through shifting points of view, including those of supporting characters. How did you decide on this narrative structure?

When I decided to set a book in the Midwest, I knew I would never please everyone with the characterizations, because there’s no prototypical midwesterner. I also wanted Eva’s adult career to be cloaked in mystery and hearsay, and I felt that telling the story from multiple points of view would both allow me to introduce a variety of midwestern characters while simultaneously keeping Eva at a bit of a distance. 

3.  Some people might argue that the Midwest isn’t normally associated with great kitchens. Can you talk about your title and how you came to use it?

No great kitchens? Not in my experience! For starters, I would never go up against a midwesterner in a bake-off. 

Even though I grew up in Minnesota and attended college outside Chicago, I don’t think my midwestern bias is merely sentimental. The people I know who are serious about food in the Midwest are as simultaneously daring, thoughtful, conscientious, and skillful as chefs anywhere. They also have a ton of heart, patience, and resilience. The Midwest can be a tough place to live much of the year, and having a talented and crowd-pleasing cook at home or nearby is a crucial morale booster during both those months where your snot is frozen and those weeks when you’re eaten alive by mosquitoes.

4.  Eva Thorvald often seems to hover in the background of the story, yet she takes on a legendary quality. How, as an author, do you go about creating a larger-than-life character? 

A writing professor of mine at Northwestern University, David Tolchinsky, taught me that a reader won’t often believe what a character says about himself, but will be much more inclined to believe what other characters say about him. Making this hearsay particularly grand contributed a lot to Eva’s legend that I don’t think would have been as effective coming from her own mouth. I also felt that the adult Eva we directly experience had to stand in contrast to this legend. When we see her as an adult, she’s unpretentious, casual, direct, and extremely kind. She has her guard up during crucial moments, but otherwise I think in person she’s open and sweet, and I love seeing how her behavior mixes with the anecdotal Eva to create a fuller portrait of the woman.

5.  Where did you find the recipes in the book? Which, if any, have personal value for you? 

Many of the recipes—five of the eight, to be precise—are inspired by recipes from a book compiled by the women of First Lutheran Church, in my grandmother’s hometown of Hunter, North Dakota. My great-grandmother and two great-aunts both have recipes in this book—and they all have personal meaning to me. This was the food I grew up on in Minnesota.


6.  Eva never really knows her real parents yet she is the embodiment of their hopes and dreams—whether through genetics or early exposure or by coincidence. How do you explain it?

A mixture of the first two—genetics and early exposure—that she’s also coupled with a mission to create an identity for herself in a larger world. It’s no accident that the first things that define her as a chef are varieties of hot chile pepper, which aren’t exactly native to the upper Midwest. Like a lot of alienated, intelligent, passionate, and bullied kids, she attaches her sense of identity to a world outside the only one she’s ever known, and finds a small community outside her immediate family to support her interest.

7.  You touch on some very contemporary food culture debates: the elevation of authenticity and heirloom traditions versus cynical “artisan” marketing; an obsession with flavor versus a preoccupation with health; the desire to celebrate local food cultures versus the need for convenience. What is your take on these issues as an eater and (presumably) home cook? 

I wanted to capture sympathetically differing points of view in this novel because, frankly, I adhere to both the traditionalism of Pat Prager and the epicurism of Octavia Kincade, and sometimes, the easy indifference of Jordy Snelling. It depends on, as with so many things, context and company. While I have culinary preferences, I am careful not to make them demands. 

I do think that knowing the source of one’s food is interesting and useful, but at its most extreme, it can also seem awfully precious. I love how the folks in Portlandia have hilariously skewered its excesses. I grew up in Pat Prager’s world, however, and so I will never fully leave it.

8.  You capture so many different voices in the narrative. Which ones came easily to you and which ones were harder to capture? 

Jordy Snelling took the most time. His was the second chapter I wrote, but I labored to get him just right for a long time. (I had a close consultant on this one, too.) Octavia Kincade’s chapter I knocked out over a weekend and barely touched during editing. For some reason, that character was extremely easy for me to write. I have a deep well of sympathy for her.

9.  The final feast in the book serves as an emotional catharsis of sorts for the characters eating it. What were the challenges in capturing such an evocative meal in writing?

For starters, I’ve never had a dinner quite like that myself, where I’d be reconciling the cost of the meal with the meal itself during the experience. I tried to get into the heads of diners who were, to varying extents, being instructed on the value of The Dinner by its price tag, and others who simply juxtaposed the experience with their own expectations. As breathtaking as Eva’s food may be, I feel that these factors would inspire exaggerated reactions like the ones I characterized, and perhaps also responses that would be much more extreme. In Cindy’s case, I also had the challenge of describing a parent eating her child’s cooking for the first time in this heightened context; synthesizing all of this was a dizzying amount of work. I did my best.

10.  The reader walks away with the sense of what could have been and how sometimes small details can weigh heavily on the future—particularly in the case of Octavia Kincade, for instance. Which of these alternate possible paths did you actually wrestle with in deciding your characters’ fates?

Well, I wrote a few chapters early on that didn’t make the book, mostly because they didn’t tell us enough about Eva. I felt that her evolution is at the center of this novel and every chapter had to tell us something new about her. I really had room for only two chapters—Pat’s and Jordy’s—where Eva is a featured extra. Any more than that, I felt, would really test my readers. In one of these excised chapters about sheng pu’erh tea, Ros Wali plays a much more significant role. Another chapter dealt with a man who grew lemon cucumbers, which is a wonderful heirloom cucumber, but not especially common. So when I think of paths not taken in this book, I often think in terms of ingredients; there were so many I considered. Rhubarb, sadly, was never on the table, simply because the final dinner happened well after peak spring rhubarb season. Next time, perhaps.

11.  At the heart of this story is the notion that “food is life.” Can you talk about what this means for you, and what it means for Eva?

Food, for Eva, and for many people, is what brings people together like nothing else; she would say it’s a lingua franca, and an expression of the chef’s identity, but also, when done with care, an expression of love. She’s become uncompromising about her food because she knows how it affects people when done well. To her, good food is an art, a science, a gift, a morale booster, and an embrace. In the absence of her father and mother, Eva has assembled a family of choice through her passion for food, and drawn people to her because of her culinary talent. I’m fortunate to know people like Eva in real life, and the best year of my life so far was when I was getting up every morning to write this book and spend more time in her world.

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