Reading J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest had the same unexpected effect as Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough – both inspired me to get into the kitchen to make something from scratch. This slim paperback has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for a few years, but its surprising mix of melancholy, humor, and satire surrounding the life of a food prodigy is still fresh.
Eva Thorvald grew hot peppers in her closet as a child, and grew up to be a world famous chef. Her journey was not easy, first abandoned by her mother when she was only a few months old, followed by the sudden death of her father, a chef who started his cooking journey making Scandinavian lutefish. She’s raised by her aunt and uncle as their own child in a poor but loving home.
The first chapters chronicle Eva’s life from toddler to pre-teen to young adult, as she matures into an independent and creative person who seems focused on a life with food. Her hot pepper revenge on middle school bullies is fun to watch and her reinvention of the caesar salad will make your mouth water. She has a knack for combining an amazing taste for the unusual with expert marketing skills, quietly learning from the best chefs as she grows into her own style.
Although she is the heroine of the story, Eva disappears in the second half of the book, as stories of those who know her and know of her take over the narrative. The names are not always familiar and it takes attention to realize how their lives are connected to Eva. When she resurfaces in short appearances, the story is better for it, and when, finally, in the last chapter Stradal forces an unexpected reunion with Eva’s mother, the outcome is not as expected but realistic, and still satisfying in its possibilities.
Throughout the book, Stradel inserts a satiric note on foodies with their idiosyncracies and gullible palates. Stradel makes the point of how paying more for labels does not necessarily result in better taste, but freshness always counts. Eva outmatches a fellow chef by driving to the fields to pick the kernels off the stalks the morning of the dinner for her own version of a succotash dish. Later in the book, she grows her own.
With Eva’s career culminating in serving five thousand dollar a plate dinners to eager patrons who have patiently survived an incredibly long waiting list for years, Stradel takes a poke at elite restaurants with exorbitant prices. Not surprisingly, the last dinner served in the book has all the flavors of home cooking, but masked with descriptions warranting the high price. The dessert includes a simple five ingredient bar – here’s the recipe – you might have made a version yourself.
Strudel’s story reminded me of those first amazing bites of an old world recipe from my grandmother when I was a girl as well as the seven course meal from an award winning chef at a restaurant with a long waiting list – both were worthy of respect and both captured the essence of what food is supposed to be. But Eva’s coming of age and her fabulous cooking also inspired me to try something old with a new twist – maybe some chocolate grated into mac and cheese?