There are always questions about artistic greatness. How did it come to happen? Was the gift developed over time by loving parents? Was it a natural gift bestowed upon the lucky child at birth? J. Ryan Stradal’s magnificent debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, shows us that there isn’t an easy answer to this age-old question. After all, brilliance is brilliance.
Meet Eva Thorvald, the bonafide culinary artistic genius at the center of Stradal’s novel. Just after we meet Eva, still as a baby, she’s dining on blended pork shoulder that her food-loving father prepares for her. Then, just a couple of years later, Eva is stumbling all over her family’s house trying to get to a perfectly ripe tomato. Maybe she was born with her love for food or, perhaps, she acquired it. But, you see where the story is heading. This girl has a destiny to fulfill.
The novel comes together in eight separate chapters. We hear directly from Eva for only a few pages, but there is no denying that this is her story. We listen as other characters help tell about Eva. In one of the most vital sections, told by Will Prager, one of Eva’s early boyfriends, the young man decides to take Eva to a fancy restaurant for a date, not fully knowing of her love for food. While there, she orders the best thing on the menu, and it’s here on this seemingly insignificant first date that Eva learns from the chef that she is the holder of a “once-in-a-generation-palate.” Eva’s brief interaction with the chef leads her to a small job at the restaurant that helps launch her career.
From here, we uncover other pieces to Eva’s puzzle. We learn of her love for hydroponic chocolate habaneros, Scandinavian lutefisk, sautéed Walleye, and minimalist Caesar salads. We watch as she borrows homemade bar recipes from Will Prager’s stepmother and uses such a basic concoction as the closing course at an incredibly extravagant dinner.
As she ages, we watch as she encounters obstacle-after-obstacle that try to prevent her dream from happening. She loses both of her parents. Poverty strikes her hard. Friends and lovers betray her. It’s a tough life, but it’s the one that turns Eva Thorvald into what she was always meant to be: a culinary star.
Stradal’s characterization of Eva is wondrous. She begins as a clumsy child before transitioning into a misfit teenager. Entering her early twenties, everything changes. She becomes the physical incarnation of her legend: “a grand, luminous, twenty-four-year-old with tree-limb arms, Angelina Jolie lips, scarred chef hands, [and] cinder-block feet.” She embodies the food she creates, and, in my mind, she’s the literary character of the year.
The world in which Stradal plants Eva is true, but is also reflects a quiet satire on the foodie culture. People pay thousands of dollars for tiny bites of food. Some shout; others cry while licking the very last morsel off their plate. Vegans mock people who use local ingredients—local as in the big corporation grocery store down the street. Stradal’s book is important, sure, but it’s also fun (and funny).
The structure Stradal uses in Kitchens of the Great Midwest will likely remind readers of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge and of Bill Clegg’s much-buzzed-about debut, Did You Ever Have A Family. We have a central character, but other voices tell most of the story. It’s unusual, but it works brilliantly here. For much of the later half of the novel, Eva is completely absent. However, as they say, absence only makes the heart grow fonder. Those words couldn’t be more true. When Eva arrives again in the closing section, it’s a triumphant ringing. It’s as if a goddess has returned to show everyone else how it’s done.
As one character observes about the heroine, “She’s another type of being. You can just tell. She ain’t from where you and I are from. She’s from somewhere else.” I feel the same kind of admiration for Stradal. What a book. Oh, I can’t help myself—what a sweet, savory, deliciously wonderful book.