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Book Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Book Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

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“She’s told me that even though you won’t meet her tonight, she’s telling you her life story through the ingredients in this meal, and although you won’t shake her hand, you’ve shared her heart.”

I have discovered the treasure that is food memoirs and food fiction, and it just makes me so happy. There is something comforting about reading about chefs, bakers, and food. Several people mentioned Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal as a great food novel, after I raved about Louise Miller’s The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is such a quirky read, but it packs a lot of punch. Eva Thorvald is the glue that holds the whole story together, but each chapter is from the perspective of someone who interacts with Eva and is named after a food. The first chapter is about her father Lars and how he is determined to pass on to Eva the love of good food. A few chapters are from the perspective of Eva’s relatives, but most are from peripheral characters who are all impacted by Eva and her cooking.

Lars Thorvald grew up in a strict Norwegian-Danish Lutheran household. He was supposed to take over his family’s bakery, but he went out on his own and started working as a chef in a restaurant. When he meets Cynthia, they fall in love, get married, and have Eva. Lars’ whole world revolves around Eva and making sure she is loved. However, Cynthia does not really feel like a mother, so she runs off with a sommelier. But Lars wants to impart his love of food to his daughter, he wants to to make her a pork shoulder at three months old. When Lars dies, Eva is raised by Lars’ brother Jarl and his wife Fiona. They are the complete opposite of foodies, preferring fast food to everything. But Eva’s genes call her to real food, and as a ten year old, she keeps chocolate habanero plants in her closet. I love how even at such a young age, she knows exactly what she wants to do. She wants to be a chef and surround herself with good food.

As Eva gets older, she starts an exclusive pop-up dinner party, where the dinners take place every few months at secret locations across the country. Each dinner is super exclusive, people are on the waiting list for years, and the cost for the dinner is $5,000 per person. These dinners are a foodie’s holy grail. Eva’s dinners are the crowning achievement of the farm-to-table movement. In one scene, she goes to pick the corn for corn succotash right off the stalks just hours beforehand. And it makes all the difference in the world.

I adored this quirky book. Other than a very brief trip to Chicago, I have never been to the Midwest, but was immediately drawn into Stradal's world of foodies. If you are looking for a great story and some mouth-watering descriptions of food, then you should definitely pick up Kitchens of the Great Midwest. I give it 4 stars. 

What other food memoirs or food fiction do you recommend?

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