New Fiction: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by Ryan Stradal
Plenty to savour in food-themed debut that cleverly interlinks various stories
Kitchens of the Great Midwest
‘Cynthia was so furious that evening, she opened a single-vineyard Merlot from Stag’s Leap that she’d been saving and paired it with a bowl of macaroni and cheese.” Cynthia, the disgruntled sommelier, is one of many characters in Ryan Stradal’s engaging debut novel whose life revolves around food and drink. Seasoned with compassion and laced with humour, Kitchens of the Great Midwest grounds itself in the contemporary American foodie scene as it follows the story of Cynthia’s daughter, Eva Thorvald, from bullied teenager to world-class chef.
Stradal, a writer who takes risks, tells Eva’s tale through the lens of a number of characters. Each of the book’s eight chapters introduces a new voice, connected in some way to Eva, all compelling in their own right. Stradal guides the reader through these interlinked stories with the skill of an established novelist, switching gender, age and cultures with ease.
Food is the common thread. Chapter titles reflect this, with various delicacies having a profound impact on the lives of the characters and the paths they take.
In the first chapter, Lutefish, the narrator is Eva’s father Lars, a chef of Norwegian descent who takes his baby daughter to farmers’ markets and longs to feed her pork shoulder instead of breast milk: “‘Puréed, maybe?’ Lars asked. ‘I could braise it first.’” Cynthia isn’t adapting to her new role as a Minnesotan housewife. She divorces Lars in a letter and scarpers to Australia with a co-worker.
Eva’s journey from abandoned daughter to misfit teenager to “a woman with an exclamation mark, the sort of hardy feminine brute of the Pleistocene from which all women, great and frail, are descended” plays out in the narratives that follow, with themes of family, friendship and loss underpinning the anecdotes and jokes.
Stradal brilliantly depicts the restaurant industry, from its long hours, unpaid internships and ego-driven chefs to the stiffed waitresses and inevitable work romances. The hipster foodie scene is parodied to great effect: supper clubs, elitist waiting lists, one-upmanship, secret locations and astronomical prices for what is, at the end of the day, sustenance.
An editor and TV producer, Stradal lives in LA, where he hosts a culinary-themed reading series called Hot Dish. The Minnesotan author has been published in The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books and McSweeney’s. His debut is warm-hearted, funny and insightful in its portrayal of a range of contemporary American characters and cultures. Comparisons can be made to the work of Elizabeth Strout, notably the interlinked stories and ensemble cast of Olive Kitteridge, but also to Baltimore writer Anne Tyler, the master chronicler of American domestic life.
For a debut novelist, Stradal bravely sets out his stall, establishing main characters before killing them off, playing with form and choosing to give the perspective of less than heroic but altogether human individuals, such as the beautiful and bitter Octavia Kincade in Golden Bantam, whose cooking pales in comparison to burgeoning chef Eva.
In Sweet Pepper Jelly, we meet Eva’s cousin Braque Dragelski, a type-A personality on a sports scholarship to a Chicago university. Listing her rigorous daily regime, Stradal pokes fun at the joyless diet of athletes: hot water and lemon at 5.30am, protein shakes, quinoa, avocado, kombacha, brown rice, grilled chicken.
Some unexpected news throws a spanner in Braque’s life plan, but this is not a young woman who crumbles in the face of adversity: “Fear is a choice, she reminded herself, and why choose it?”
Walleye brings along a boyfriend for Eva in the form of Will Prager, whose teenage banter with his friends is well done. They tease Will for not making a move while on a date in a kayak fishing for walleye: “Anywhere where two people can fit, they can have sex. It’s the law.”
The pivotal foods introduced along the way all end up, somewhat neatly, featuring in the dinner Eva throws for her chosen guests in the final chapter. The family saga at the heart of the novel works well in an ending that is somewhat rushed but also suspenseful and convincing. At $120 to get on the waiting list for Eva’s renowned event and $5,000 a ticket, Stradal simultaneously satirises the modern food scene and shows what lengths people will go to in order to make amends for the past.
For all its parody, the book is also educational – the lycopene content of marinara sauce; how capsaicin releases endorphins; recipes for caramel bars and carrot cake; the “grapefruit, pear and minerality” of a Pinot Gris.
Bon vivants and readers alike will enjoy this melting pot of a debut that should be to most people’s tastes.