Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

The cover of this novel gives you an idea of what's in store for you as you begin the delightful journey into Eva Thorvald's beginnings.  Eva is the  daughter of Lars Thorvald, a Midwestern chef, and his wife, Cynthia, a waitress who longs to run away to the vineyards of California and become a sommelier.  I won't tell you more about the cover, except that you'll be flipping this book back and forth every time you begin a new chapter to see how the cover ties into it.  

Eva Thorvald is the center of this book, but it's not told from her point of view.  Rather, each chapter is told by someone in Eva's life as she grows from a  four month old baby with a desire to eat fresh tomatoes at a farmer's market, to an 11 year old growing peppers in her bedroom closet (using her brother's grow light equipment after he ends his weed growing business), to a young woman poised to become a famous chef with an impeccable palate.  Eva's life is filled with tragedy, and adults that just don't know what to do with her.  She's statuesque, smart as a whip, and obsessed with food.  Someone who is destined to make their mark and nothing will stand in their way--the stars will align, connections will be made, and yet another step will be taken on the path to celebrity.  

It took me a few chapters to settle into this novel, but I absolutely loved it.  At first I was laughing over Lars and his desire to feed his baby food she just wasn't old enough to eat; yet as I read along, the pitfalls that liter Eva's life sobered me up a bit.  I guess what I would say about this novel is that it is endearing, as only a Midwesterner can say and understand.  Travels in Minnesota, Chicago, and Iowa all form the backbone to what I consider a love letter to potlucks, lutefisk, small towns, and most importantly, bar desserts.  Cause really, you haven't lived until you've eaten a pan of bar desserts--doesn't matter which kind, just that they are made with real butter and sugar.  

I read a lot of "foodie" books, and I enjoy them all.  Most of them are either about homemade goodness, or new movements in food and how it is presented, processed, and treated as a trend.  This is probably the first book I've read where there's a blend of the two movements.  I believe this is a good thing, because we all crave something new and different, but those small town church recipe potlucks dishes are what remain in our souls, and remind us of where we come from and all those gentle people we loved who just aren't around anymore.  They live on in those jello molds, cream cheese concoctions, and the ever dreadful but required at holidays lutefisk. 

 My family has a recipe that we simply call "the green beans", as well as "the cheese ball".  We all know what these are, and they're only made one way.  They are required at every family Christmas and Thanksgiving.  There are no shortcuts, and there are no healthy versions.  They are simply what keep us connected generation after generation.   

Penguin/Random House generously sent me a copy of this book for review, as well as a wonderful book club guide.   This is the book you need to read for your next book club, and make it a festive occasion by having everyone bring a covered dish to help soak up the wine you'll be serving.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of one woman's journey to become the  super star of the pop-up supper club.   It's an interesting way of looking at the main character of a novel--seeing her through everyone else's eyes is a treat and a great discussion for your book club!  The people in this book loop around, pop in and out of each others stories, and it all finally comes together in a wonderful, once in a lifetime memorable feast at the end. 

This book is available in hardcover, audio, and ebook the week of July 28th.  

Rating:  8/10 for a batch of characters that are funny, tragic, sad, and very memorable.  A great treat for anyone from the Midwest.  It will make you homesick even if you still live in the Midwest; it may soon have you in the kitchen to create a family favorite from years gone by. 


  1. I'm not ashamed to say I'm a sucker for covers (I mean I ALSO read the back of the book...) and this one is gorgeous! I haven't read it yet, but the part where the story is told by different characters makes me skitterish. I already read one like that and I didn't like it much!
    Still worth a try :)

  2. Awesome review! We had some of the same loves about this book. The beans and the cheese ball indeed.