Thursday, May 28, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

From the publisher: 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.

I absolutely loved Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and experienced an existential crisis as a result: I enjoyed it so much that I could hardly bear to put it down, but at the same time (much like I imagine the diners at Eva's pop-up suppers must have felt) I wanted to savor it for as long as I possibly could. The book tells Eva's story through a collection of vignettes that progress through time, all told from the perspective of various individuals who make appearances (some lengthy, some brief) in her life. This format could have been a gimmicky mess, but it actually really worked for me. Eva is a special kind of main character -- she's so vibrant and well-drawn that I found her to be a presence on the page even when a particular vignette barely mentions her.

It's a rare thing to find a book set sincerely, lovingly, respectfully in the Midwest, with characters and scenarios that feel familiar but never stereotypical. Knowing that some of the recipes that are interwoven through the story actually came from the author's great-grandmother's Lutheran church cookbook?  I'm sold.

I read an advance reader copy of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It is scheduled to be released July 28, 2015.

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