Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal Book Review

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is the debut novel of J. Ryan Stradal.

Lars Thorvald’s life changes when his wife leaves him and their baby daughter Eva to pursue her dream of becoming a sommelier. Trying to keep his life together with the help of his brother Jarl and his girlfriend Fiona, Lars seems to be inching towards being okay when a terrible accident ends his life, leaving Jarl and Fiona as Eva’s parents.

Over the years little Eva fills the hole left by her mother with her ever-growing love for food which shapes her identity and which will eventually make her one of the best chefs the country has ever seen.

Set against the backdrop of the American midwest which is known for its comfort, home-style cooking it’s interesting to see how Stradal weaves in recipes, ingredients and flavours that not only seem fresh and exciting but also seem to be right at home in the midwest. This plays awesomely as a mirror of Eva who is a bright, upcoming mind in her field but at the same time is also very much a product of her environment.

This is a great read for lovers of literary fiction that has a strong family through-line.

Excerpt from Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

By the time her parents got home from their jobs, Eva was sitting at the dining room table, doing vocabulary homework—the one where they teach you a new word and you have to use it in a sentence. She was writing all of her sentences in iambic pentameter to make it more interesting for herself. These people didn’t know what to do with someone like her.

Her teacher, Mr. Ramazzotti, was a sweetheart, but spent 90 percent of class time managing the five stupidest little bastards in class, who chose to create a battle out of everything, making even something as rote as taking attendance twice as long as it ought to be. Where does that leave someone who wants to have the largest pepper garden in Iowa? Did she really have to wait out seven more soul-shredding years? It was like being told you can run free one day—in June several years from now—but during every second of the intervening time, you’ll be getting run over by the world’s slowest steamroller, and every day it cracks a bone, and re-cracks it, and recracks it, and when you’re eighteen all you’re going to have is a body full of dust, lifted and carried into the future like a flag loose from its mast.

Eva beat her parents home, thankfully, and even had a birthday package come in the mail from her cousin Braque at Northwestern—a T-shirt of something called “Bikini Kill.” She didn’t know what it was—probably a band? But it was from Braque, so it definitely was cool.

She was finishing the second-to-last sentence of her homework when her mom came home and walked into the dining room, green pantsuit and Hillary hair disheveled from a day doing who knows what at the temp agency, lugging two heavy grocery sacks, dropping them on the floor of the kitchen. Eva glanced up.

“How was work, Mom?” Fiona was moving milk, butter, and ice cream from the grocery bags to the refrigerator and freezer.

“Good, now that it’s over. Here, I picked up some chocolate chip ice cream, and some little pink cups and spoons at the gas station.” A frosted plastic tub of Blue Bunny ice cream thudded onto the kitchen tile. At least it was a local brand.

“Sounds fine, Mom.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get you that organic stuff for your class,” Fiona said. “I know it’s your birthday.” Eva knew that her mom hadn’t gotten the vegan sorbet because it was too expensive. In their home, cost was the main reason why something good didn’t happen. Fiona set a small white paper carton of N. W. Gratz brand Vegan Blueberry Sorbet in front of Eva.

“So I just got a little one, just for you.”

Eva couldn’t believe it. Her mom had driven into the city just to get it for her. She sometimes forgot that her parents were actually capable of doing nice things. Too often she could focus only on the horrifyingly unjust occasions when they prevented her from doing stuff, like when they told her that she couldn’t go to the downtown farmers’ market alone until she was ten, and even then didn’t let her go until she was ten and two months. Or their stupid rules regarding Randy. She reached for the carton, but her mom grabbed it back.
“Tomorrow,” Fiona said. “Save it for your birthday.”