Litstack Recs | We the Animals & Kitchens of the Great Midwest

by Tee Tate

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is the story of Eva Thorvald. Well, it starts out with her father, Lars, a stoically enthusiastic yet unheralded chef with a love of being in a kitchen, but baby Eva quickly becomes the central character. Eva is born with an extremely acute palate, and it is her culinary development that is the central theme of the book. However, Eva narrates her own story in only one section of this multi-faceted novel.

J. Ryan Stradal

Instead, Kitchens of the Great Midwest unfolds like a multi-course meal, with Eva as the unifying ingredient. In some sections, she shines. In others, her influence is more subtle, more nuanced. In a few, she is merely a fleeting hint. But she is always present, and she binds all the sections together as they gradually melt into each other.

For instance, from Eva’s defining early section we move to her older cousin, to whom a rebellious teenaged Eva flees to after a totally expected parental confrontation. Then one of her first boyfriends, followed by a somewhat pretentious young woman, confident in her social upper mobility, who belongs to a group of foodie friends that meets regularly over a prepared dinner, into which Eva’s introduction causes both delight and crisis. And so on. In each section, we learn about Eva, but it really is the narrator – the cousin, the boyfriend, the foodie acquaintance – who is the compelling star of the show.

This allows author J. Ryan Stradal to whip up an amazingly diverse and yet congruent story. The different characters are each vibrant and full in their own unique way; each speaks with their own style of voice and experience. Even the secondary characters are compelling. Gourmet chefs, sommelier wannabes, condescending farmers market vendors, the potluck ladies of the small town Lutheran church (and their arch rivals from the Methodist church across town) – even the likes of a young hospice nurse and a lonely trophy wife. They populate the story with a whiff of authenticity, key ingredients that do not overpower but nevertheless give the central tale – the mix of ingredients that are bound to Eva – a richness that in lesser hands may fall flat or taste bland.

However, if Eva were the only motif in Kitchens of the Great Midwest, the story might still lack an integrated cohesion, akin to a set of clever short stories rather than a fully realized novel. Luckily, there are also the food experiences.

Each section has a food experience on which the action at least anecdotally pivots: a hot wings eating contest, a fishing trip to procure the freshest of walleye, a state fair dessert bars contest, an exclusive fine dining experience that costs thousands of dollars and has a waiting list that stretches over a decade. The story and the narrator of that story still take center stage, but the experience of food, especially the particulars involved in its preparation, are the consistent table setting. Less consistently, and yet often (and often whimsically), honest to goodness recipes are scattered throughout the narrative, as well.

It’s a delightful way to present a story. There is a definite Midwestern flair to the food and the characters, but there is also an elevation of the food and its ingredients that will delight many and entertain all, foodie and fast food scarfer alike. Not everyone may understand the particularities of “Grilled Venison served with Grilled Moskvich Tomatoes, Wilted Kale with Sweet Pepper Jelly Vinaigrette (housemade sweet pepper jelly & sherry vinegar & grapeseed oil) paired with 2005 Marcassin Blue-Slide Ridge Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast of California”. But everyone will be able to enjoy the folding of opposite-end-of-the-spectrum aspects of our culinary experiences such as these into an eclectic but accessible story.

So pony on up to the table and tuck in to the literary feast that is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Even if you know a lot more about the proper preparation of tater tot hot dish than you do of heirloom legitimacy of Moskvich tomatoes (or even if your skill set is based on a well-timed microwave), you’ll come away from the experience thinking, “well dang, that was a mighty fine feast, indeed.”

—Sharon Browning

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