I loathe the word ‘quirky’ used to describe books but right now I don’t have the strength to open the thesaurus to find an alternative (suggestions welcome) – I’m ‘recovering’ (feeling ‘luminous and exhausted’) from an amazing few days in Hobart where I ate some of the best meals I’ve ever had (more on that later). All relevant because Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is a quirky book about exceptional food.
“It was about as much flavor as fifteen seconds were capable of; after one bite and one sip of wine, Cindy felt luminous and exhausted.”
The story follows the life of Eva Thorvald and is told from the perspective of various people around her – her father, a boyfriend, cousins, employees and so on. Each chapter also features a particular dish, from Scandinavian lutefisk and hydroponic chocolate habaneros to red pepper jelly and carrot cake.
Stories structured to tell the story of one person through the eyes of others (Olive Kitteridge and Vactionland come to mind) risk becoming just that – overly structured and predictable. Stradal avoids this by choosing characters that are both close to Eva and some that are mere acquaintances – the loose connections between the characters slowly come together as the story progresses but not once do they feel forced.
The coupling of a particular dish with each new character is probably less well-executed but only because each chapter is titled with the feature food, which means readers (maybe just me) start looking for clues as soon as the chapter begins. But it’s a minor quibble because there is so much to love about this unusual story. It has a fairytale-quality – Eva is described fantastically as someone with a “once-in-a-generation palate” and her pop-up dinners cost thousands of dollars per head (and have an eight-year wait list).
Equally, the theme of understanding identity and the use of good guys versus bad guys plays out in many of the stories, with the overall story arc not revealed until the final chapter. And I won’t say much more about the ending other than it was immensely satisfying – don’t expect happily-ever-afters or the resolution of every single issue but do count on a true finale that tied together details that I hadn’t even noticed whilst I was reading.
The descriptions of food are well done – I suspect the name-dropping and snobby snark was intentional –
“After a brazenly lifeless dinner of fish sticks and frozen peas, Eva scurried back to her room.”
– and the dialogue was sharp and often funny. The scene where Lars, Eva’s father, is talking to her paediatrician about when newborn Eva could start eating solid food provides a good example –
“Looking over your dietary plan here, I’d have more immediate reservations.”
“Well, pork shoulder to a three-month-old baby. Not advisable.”
“Puréed, maybe?” Lars asked. “I could braise it first. Or maybe just roast the bones and make pork stock for a demi-glace. That wouldn’t be my first choice, though.”
“You work at Hutmacher’s, right?” Dr. Latch said. “You do make an excellent pork shoulder. But give it at least two years.”
“Two years, huh?” He didn’t want to tell Dr. Latch that this conversation crushed his heart…
4/5 Memorable, fun and unexpectedly, a real page-turner.
Pair Kitchens of the Great Midwest with a deconstructed Caesar salad (because it has the necessary food-snob factor, because Eva makes a show-stopping Caesar; and because of this: “She’s dissembling,” Robbe said. “She makes, let’s call them, sexy versions of old-school comfort food.”)