KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST
What a delicious read in J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel: Kitchens of the Great Midwest. His treatment of the subject of haute (and low) cuisine is both respectful and poetic, as is his attention to the detail of place. The Midwest has never appeared so endearing, nor possibly as strange.
The star of the story, Eva Thorvald, is born in the late 1980s to Lars Thorvald and Cynthia Hargreaves, the two most unlikely candidates for happy marriage that ever was. But when Cynthia gets knocked up, marry they do, and vigorous ten pound baby Eva follows.
“Cynthia was still twenty-five, and bounced back to her skinny frame with color in her cheeks and bigger boobs, while Lars just grew balder and fatter and slower. He had learned, before she was pregnant, that he had to hold her hand or touch her in some way while they walked places together, so that other men knew they were a couple. Now she was the mother of his daughter, he was even more wary, snarling at passing dudes with confident Tom Selleck mustaches and cool Bon Jovi hair.”
Lars is a foodie through and through, and Cynthia has a knack for food and wine pairings beyond reason. But gravely oppressed by motherhood from the start, Cynthia ditches husband and child as soon as reasonably possible, running off to California to learn the wine trade.
Lars devotes his life to his darling daughter, whose taste buds he teases with the finest ingredients her pediatrician will permit. He reads Beard on Bread to her. He takes her on excursions through Farmer’s Markets, searching for priceless potatoes and redolent rhubarb.
Lucky for her, Eva is born with a “once in a generation palate.” But is this because of her natural father? It’s hard to say. Not long after Cynthia goes MIA, Lars dies suddenly, leaving baby Eva to be raised by her Uncle Jarl and Aunt Fiona, who while loving her completely, don’t know a mung bean from mozzarella.
Part of the pleasure of this novel derives from Stradal’s juicy narrative. From the start, we know that Eva is a survivor and that she is destined for great things. We love how she loves her adopted parents, how she embraces strays of all kinds, and how even as a kid, she demonstrates great depths of compassion.
“[Jarl] suddenly looked sad and bewildered, like an elephant that had been fired from the circus and was wandering down the side of the highway with nowhere to go. The thought occurred to Eva that if her dad confronted those boys face-to-face, they would make fun of her weak, fat, kindhearted father as brutally as they made fun of her, and she needed to protect her dad from that; his ego was already so fragile.”
It’s not giving anything away to reveal that Eva becomes a celebrated, if mysterious and deeply private, chef. Her love for good food is not for show or for fame; it is real as rice and sweet as whipped marshmallow. In the end, her love of food is about what all great food is about: celebration and gratitude and sharing your bounty with those you love.