Over the last month or so, I have picked up and put down Kitchens of the Great Midwest multiple times without buying it. The title and descriptions just didn’t appeal for some reason. Then finally, serendipitously, in a hurry for a long flight somewhere, I grabbed it for my plane read pile. Had I known what a whimsical gem I was missing, I would have picked up Kitchens of the Great Midwest much sooner.
The novel is really a collection of short stories, a series of chapters in a kaleidoscope of voices that touch one woman, Eva Thorvald, to varying degrees. Some are young. Some are old. Some are male. Some are female. Each is unique, vivid, and thoroughly credible.
While food is definitely woven through each chapter, most of these characters are not foodies. Some don’t even like food. One character is a busy college softball player who schedules her calories to maintain her strength. Another is pretending to be interested in fancy food to impress a girl. These varying relationships with food were a fascinating way to describe the characters. We all need to eat, but do so in such different ways.
Throughout all this delightful character creation, an occasional recipe spices up the narrative, illustrating the character with its ingredient list and its instruction style. Chili oil. French onion soup. Kraft caramel bars. These recipes aren’t there to inspire you to make them, but rather to help you imagine the character who cooks with them.
My favorite, by far, was Pat Prager’s chapter, an angry old church lady who makes award winning dessert bars. The chapter plunges us into the politics of county fair baking contests, the false piety of the most devout in the congregation, and closes with her mystifying encounter with the trendy gluten free and locally sourced food movement. The voice never wavered and when Pat reappears later on, from another point of view, it’s like discovering an old friend.
This is J. Ryan Stradal‘s first novel. Each page makes the reader feel the fun he clearly had writing it. I’m really looking forward to his next work. He will be reading and doing events in Chicago in October and I plan on dragging as many friends as I can to hear him speak. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is currently available in hardcover.