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Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J Ryan Stradal, Viking, 2015, 310 pp
Summary from Goodreads: When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.
My Review: This book arrived in my mailbox in advanced reader proof form. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that publishers sometimes send me books without my requesting them. All of my family on my mother's side either live in Michigan or were born there. I lived there for over 20 years. We all cook or are otherwise involved in the food business. We consider ourselves Midwesterners.
So I was intrigued by the title though somewhat put off by the cover. The book summary did not excite me: a woman "finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota." Not my kind of book, I thought.
Many months later I listened to the OtherPeople podcast interview with the author and something clicked. Then one of my reading groups picked it and so I read it. It turned out to be my kind of book: Fractured families, an absolutely unique heroine named Eva, laugh-out-loud snarky commentary about all things foodie and, while he could have gone that way, no heartwarming ending.
Eva lost both her parents early. Her mother got a taste, literally, of wine in the life of a sommelier, and realized she was not cut out for motherhood. She vanished without a trace. Eva's father was a consummate chef and wanted to feed his newborn pureed pork shoulder. Alas, she was still on the bottle when he met his end.
The baby was raised by her aunt and uncle in near poverty but she was super smart and clearly had the food gene. In fact, after an almost fatal fling with hot peppers in middle school and despite her clueless though loving stepparents, she goes on to become an amazing chef herself.
J Ryan Stradal began his career writing for TV. You can see that in the quick flashes of scenes going by, the hyper awareness of modern culture, and a pitch perfect command of snark. But he is from Minnesota himself and probably at heart a half-grown Midwestern boy. His characters come leaping off the page as he finds the goodness inside almost every one of them. He is a master of voice and nuance.
The story flies by so it wasn't until about halfway that I realized I was only seeing Eva through the eyes of the characters who intersect with her life, making for an unusual but quite effective structure that is cinematic in style. The novel would make a great movie.
Though Eva suffers, she always prevails. And isn't that the dream of any human being? To grapple with all the hurts and misfortunes but to emerge as the superhero of one's own life.
In summary, a delightful real-life fantasy.