Kitchens of the Great Midwest is, on the surface, the story of Eva Thorvald, but it is so much more. Each chapter tells the story of people who are linked to Eva in one way or another. It opens with Lutefisk, the story of her father and caroms around the Midwest to tell the stories of people whose lives intersected with hers, no matter how slightly, until it ends with the story of her mother, Cynthia.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is centered in Minnesota, with short excursions to Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and South Dakota. Minnesota is its heart, though, and there is the familiar empathetic love of humanity with all its weaknesses and foibles that will remind readers of stories from Garrison Keillor or essays by Carol Bly. It is a profoundly Midwestern novel in its celebration of the ordinariness of life from fishing and deer hunting to county fair baking contests.
Minneapolis is a hot spot of American foodie culture, the culture in which Eva grows up and blossoms into a world-class chef. Oregonians are used to the mix of pride and chagrin that foodie culture can provoke. Even our fast food franchises will list the local sources of their ingredients, though not quite to the excess of a Portlandia sketch. J. Ryan Stradal captures both the pursuit of excellence that is the heart of foodie culture while poking holes in the pretensions it can invoke. There is a scene in the Bars chapter both heartbreakingly earnest and straight out of sketch comedy.
There is a glut of fiction with recipes, particularly if you include the never-ending supply of cozy mysteries with crime-saving bakers, cooks, and innkeepers who insist on sharing their recipes. I am seldom impressed and usually skip the recipes. However, Kitchens of the Great Midwest recipes have a voice of their own. “Use Gruyere from Switzerland, or you’ll be wasting your time.” You see, these are recipes of authority. Also, despite the foodie fascination for heirloom tomatoes, the book includes the ubiquitous Minnesota wild rice casserole with a can of cream of mushroom soup. It’s that kind of honesty that makes this book great.
In some ways, Kitchens of the Great Midwest feels a bit like a short story collection in the way each chapter is so much more about someone other than Eva while telling Eva’s life story. Characters from the past reappear in surprising places, a continuity and connectedness representative of the communitarian values that are so much part of Minnesota’s culture. Sometimes one person’s story ends without the pieces nicely tied up, but we encounter them in a later chapter, finding answers to unanswered questions with a casual aside, a light touch that never announces it is tying up an earlier story.
I loved Kitchens of the Great Midwest even though at times it broke my heart. It also made me laugh, sometimes out loud. It was written by someone with a large heart, filled with compassion for those who are in struggling with the many challenges of life and a healthy batch of cynicism about those who perhaps make other people’s struggles more difficult. I loved it because it felt so authentic, even when it featured a banquet that seemed a send up of Babette’s Feast or Like Water For Chocolate. I don’t know what kind of film it would make, but it certainly is a literary feast for readers.