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Novelist J. Ryan Stradal spent months working on his vibrant first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, without ever knowing if anything would come of it.
“You spend a lot of time alone in a room thinking, I don’t know who’s going to read this. No one might care,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “But it’s just what I wanted to do. If someone said, Tell me your perfect day, I would say, I wake up with an idea in my head and I write it. Then I go out with friends around 7:00 for fish and chips.”
Set in Midwest kitchens in and around the Twin Cities—a region that Stradal, a native of Hastings, Minnesota, knows well—Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a masterfully woven set of stories that all connect, in some way, to the lovely and slightly mysterious Eva Thorvald. Eva’s mother abandoned her as an infant, after deciding she wasn’t ready to be a parent. “I wasn’t cut out to be a mother,” she writes in the note she leaves behind. “The work of being a mom feels like prison to me.”
Soon after, Eva’s doting father, a chef, suffers a massive heart attack, leaving his daughter to be raised in poverty by her kindhearted but alcoholic uncle and overworked aunt.
The few food experiences her father imparted in her before his death stick with Eva—or maybe cooking is just in her DNA. She grows to be a wunderkind chef, starting as a child by cultivating searing-hot peppers under grow lamps and selling them to local restaurants. The adult Eva becomes famous for hosting legendary pop-up restaurant meals with years-long waiting lists, inspired by her participation in a Sunday supper club.
When her mother reappears years later at one of Eva’s pop-up restaurants, Eva is faced with her past—and must decide whether her mother can be part of her future.
“Eva, to me, feels like the person I want to be,” says Stradal. “Eva was decisive at points in her life where I felt a lot of us weren’t decisive. The trauma of her childhood made her grow a thicker skin. The vicissitudes of youth, like being attracted to a douche-bag guy—that happens to everyone in their 20s! It was all something she worked through and ultimately assembled a family of choice. You see that a lot in places like LA, where we’re far from where we came from. Eva’s sort of a personification of that.”
That’s not to say that Stradal has shallow family roots like Eva. In fact, he credits his mother, who died a decade ago, with giving him the desire to write.
“Our house was filled with books,” he says. “She was one of the few voracious readers I knew. From a young age, I got the idea from her that the most important thing you could do was write a novel. It was the pinnacle of human achievement. The process of writing this book was like having a conversation with her every day. It really felt good.”
While his childhood was filled with books, it was not filled with gourmet cuisine. A child of the 1970s and ’80s, he recalls frozen dinners and a local soda he calls “basically suicide in a can.”
“I definitely find myself engaged by the evolution of food consciousness in my life,” he says. “Since 1975, when I was born, it’s stark. I remember the microwave came out and my parents said, this is great! It took such a turn in the 1970s and 1980s toward convenience at the expense of taste and safety, frankly. And now, we’re excited about exotic farmer’s market vegetables. It’s not just hipsters on the coasts who are shopping at farmer’s markets. It’s all across the country.”
Although the book is packed with scrumptious descriptions of food and a bounty of recipes for everything from French onion soup to wild rice casserole to carrot cake, Stradal does not consider himself a foodie. He has worked in publishing and television production, but never in a kitchen.
“I’m an enthusiastic end user,” he says with a laugh. “I like food quite a bit, but I’m not an accomplished chef. I sure can swipe a credit card with the best of them—I love restaurants and can spend with alacrity.”
Stradal was inspired by pop-up restaurants in and around Los Angeles, which by their very nature offer a unique dining experience.
“They’re wonderful, especially if they exist for logical reasons other than financial,” he says. “For example, there was an interest in Georgian food, so some local chefs sell it out and serve Georgian food for a night. Then you can maybe hire them as caterers or fund their next pop-up if you’re a real enthusiast.”
Stradal is half-worried that pop-up restaurants, a somewhat unknown phenomenon when he started writing the book, will evolve so quickly that they will be passé soon after publication.
“I feel like by the time this book comes out, it’ll be historical fiction,” he says. “People will be charged $5,000 and there’ll be a year-long waitlist. At the time I started writing, it felt very in-the-future, borderline satire.”
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is one of those fantastic, kinetic books that simultaneously entertain and make you hungry. (Think Like Water for Chocolate or Heartburn.) But it is not, Stradal insists, a book about food.
“I feel it’s a food book second,” he says. “It’s a family book first. I really wanted to write a book that was emotional and about families: one with empathy and heart, with interesting, character-driven stories. I set out to write a book with characters I don’t often see—where they live, how they behave. I didn’t think about writing a book about, like, a white guy falling in love in Brooklyn.”
This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.