J. Ryan Stradal | LibraryReads Author, July 2015

J.-Ryan-Stradal7815In J. Ryan Stradal’s luscious first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, Eva Thorvald grows from an infant whose food-obsessed father dreams of feeding her pork-based demi-glace to a bullied preteen growing hydroponic chocolate ­habanero chili peppers in her closet to a kind and increasingly self-aware young woman with a positive genius for cooking. Relating Eva’s coming of age through her culinary interests certainly seems distinctive. But which came first, the character or the food?

“The food came first,” confessed Stradal in a phone interview with LJ. “I thought of the end before I started to write.” Stradal had originally envisioned telling the story of a carefully organized dinner party, working backward to connect the guests with the hosts. Though that idea wasn’t completely borne out in the writing, the book’s final, glorious repast does show that many of the guests and kitchen helpers were instrumental in introducing Eva to the various ingredients featured. As the narrative moves from chapter to chapter, leaping through time and nimbly bypassing straightforward exposition, we learn less about Eva than about what Stradal calls “the culinary zeitgeist of the Middle West.”

kitchensofgreatmidwest7815And what a zeitgeist. As Stradal explains, “I wanted to write a book about the world I grew up in, and to accurately reflect the Midwest, you must write about food. It’s what ties people together.” Thus, through the zigs and zags of Eva’s life, Stradal introduces us to a range of characters, from unpretentious Pat Prager and her peanut butter bars to rough-and-tumble deer hunter Jordy Snelling, whose presence reminds us that “food isn’t just about chemistry in the kitchen or the end users.” Such voices aren’t often captured in literature, concedes Stradal, for the Midwest “lacks the robust literary traditions of other regions.”

But why? “I don’t think it’s a lack of dynamism,” Stradal muses, “but the dynamism is at a level that isn’t as easy to detect as in New York or the West.” Then, too, Midwesterners just aren’t inclined to self-promotion, though they might want to puff up their chests a bit upon reading this book.

Such peaceable self-sufficiency can lead restless natives in creative directions. “When you are growing up in a relatively small town in Minnesota—a safe place to raise kids, which means it’s boring—you make your own fun,” explains Stradal. Reading was fun, and he and his friends developed the distinctively Midwestern fondness for bands featured in the text; both books and music, he said, were “messages in bottles from other worlds.”

By the time Stradal hit high school, he had developed a taste for international cuisine, and since then food has informed his life—and now his writing. While like any good Midwesterner he skewers foodie pretension (never mind his 16 years in Los Angeles), he’s glad that in the last decades this country’s appreciation of food has evolved. “Cooking can be an art,” he insists, “and certainly it’s also an offering of love.”

In our micromanaged world of helicopter parents and entitled offspring, Eva is a refreshingly relaxed and independent presence, confirming Stradal’s intention to “write about a uniquely self-directed young woman who found what she wanted largely on her own.” In an early, formative chapter, told from Eva’s perspective, we see her being bullied. But she never turns bitter or vengeful, instead revealing a sunny generosity. “She wants to bring people into her circle,” explains Stradal. Just as folks gathered at the dinner party Stradal envisioned as he started writing his joyous book.—­Barbara Hoffert

library_reads_logo_websiteCreated by a group of librarians, LibraryReads offers a monthly list of ten current titles culled from nominations made by librarians nationwide as their favorites. See the July 2015 list at ow.ly/ONPyL and contact libraryreads.org/for-library-staff/ to make your own nomination.

This article was published in Library Journal's July 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.