28 July 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Summary from Goodreads:
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer’s most hotly-anticipated debut.

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.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

Might it be possible for a parent to groom an infant's gourmet palate by feeding her things like braised pork shoulder? Puréed, of course, since she hasn't any teeth, but chef Lars Thorvald wants his baby daughter Eva to share in his passion for good food.  (Ok, parents before you come after me or the author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest with your pitchforks, this is a novel; feeding an infant puréed pork shoulder would probably land you in colicky baby hell.)  Unfortunately for baby Eva, shortly after her sommelier mother asks for a divorce via letter her father suffers a heart attack and dies; she is subsequently adopted by her father's brother and his fiancée.  Thus begins Eva's peripatetic journey around the Midwest from Minnesota to Iowa to Chicago back to Minnesota.

As Eva grows up and develops her unique palate, her story is told by a collection of narrators sometimes only tangentially related to Eva: Eva's father, her cousin, a first boyfriend, a jealous rival (rival? spoiled attention seeker? crazy person?), a good friend's feckless brother, a Lutheran Minnesota housewife entering her bars in a state fair baking contest (I dare you not to read that chapter with Marge Gunderson's voice in your head, I dare you), and, finally, Eva's mother.  Only one chapter is told by Eva herself, at the age of eleven, when she is cultivating habaneros (using her cousin Randy's marijuana growing operation after he goes to rehab) and being abused by other kids on the bus (that chapter takes place in Des Moines, IA, and it's pretty cringe-worthy; the kids got off lightly, in my opinion).  Eva's talent at building unforgettable flavor combinations and meals are a combination of her father's passion for food and her mother's passion for wine.  On a first date with her high school boyfriend, she makes the acquaintance of the restaurant's chef when she suggests the dish has too much rosemary - the chef asks her to identify all the ingredients and Eva does, in the way an experienced oenophile can tell what type of wood was used in the wine cask just by taste.  Kitchens of the Great Midwest is filled with a love of food, and taste, and texture, and family, and kitchens, a room where famililes are meant to come together.

Only one thing is missing from Kitchens of the Great Midwest and that, in my opinion, is Eva herself.  Eva is the wunderkind of foodie culture, a self-taught chef and restauranteur with an innate talent for creating unforgettable meals.  She is considerate, humble, driven, eager to learn, and unhampered by ego.  She is the manic-pixie-dreamgirl of this novel and I wanted to hear more of Eva's voice from Eva herself.  She becomes so insubstantial at times - the narrators all have such amazing voices and stories that they begin to overpower her.  Where is the eleven-year-old who could eat peppers so hot that others needed to go to the hospital?  One could argue that the final menu in the book is what author Stradal was building toward throughout the narrative but I wanted so, so badly to hear Eva's voice again.  What did she really think of Cynthia (the crazy one)?  Why Pat Prager?  What did Eva really think about her parents?  The MPDG does not grow or change or have flaws but causes others to change simply by existing.  Eva Thorvald deserves more.

This minor issue aside, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a great summer read.  The voices are good, the idea of the structure for the novel is great.  The settings - suburbs and crummy apartments in the Twin Cities, lower-income Des Moines, rural Minnesota - are spot on.  There's a scene skewering hipster, neo-yuppies (no idea what the offical label for those people are, that's just how they struck me).  There are recipes - I suggest the bars (there's also a preparation for lutefisk, I ate a bite of that once on a dare - do not recommend as an edible).  Also, the cover art for the US edition is excellent.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is out today, July 28, 2015, in the US wherever books are sold!

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance copy of this book via the First to Read program from Penguin.

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