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Kitchens of the Great Midwest
Cover of Kitchens of the Great Midwest
Kitchens of the Great Midwest
A Novel
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"A sweet and savory treat." —People
"An impressive feat of narrative jujitsu . . . that keeps readers turning the pages too fast to realize just how ingenious they are."—The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Pick

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a novel about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country's most coveted dinner reservation. It was selected as a best book of the year by Amazon, BookPage, LibraryReads, and NPR.

When Lars Thorvald's wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he's left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He's determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva's journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that's a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal's startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

"A sweet and savory treat." —People
"An impressive feat of narrative jujitsu . . . that keeps readers turning the pages too fast to realize just how ingenious they are."—The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Pick

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a novel about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country's most coveted dinner reservation. It was selected as a best book of the year by Amazon, BookPage, LibraryReads, and NPR.

When Lars Thorvald's wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he's left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He's determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva's journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that's a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal's startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

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  • From the cover

    LUTEFISK

    Lars Thorvald loved two women. That was it, he thought in passing, while he sat on the cold concrete steps of his apartment building. Perhaps he would've loved more than two, but it just didn't seem like things were going to work out like that.

    That morning, while defying a doctor's orders by puréeing a braised pork shoulder, he'd stared out his kitchen window at the snow on the roof of the Happy Chef restaurant across the highway and sung a love song to one of those two girls, his baby daughter, while she slept on the living room floor. He was singing a Beatles song, replacing the name of the girl in the old tune with the name of the girl in the room.

    He hadn't told a woman "I love you" until he was twenty-eight. He didn't lose his virginity until he was twenty-eight either. At least he'd had his first kiss when he was twenty-one, even if that woman quit returning his calls less than a week later.

    Lars blamed his sorry luck with women on his lack of teenage romance, and he blamed his lack of teenage romance on the fact that he was the worst-smelling kid in his grade, every year. He stunk like the floor of a fish market each Christmas, starting at age twelve, and even when he didn't smell terrible, the other kids acted like he did, because that's what kids do. "Fish Boy," they called him, year round, and it was all the fault of an old Swedish woman named Dorothy Seaborg.

    • • •

    On a December afternoon in 1971, Dorothy Seaborg of Duluth, Minnesota, fell on the ice and broke her hip while walking to her mailbox, disrupting the supply line of lutefisk for the Sunday Advent dinners at St. Olaf's Lutheran Church. Lars's father, Gustaf Thorvald—of Duluth's Gustaf & Sons bakery, and one of the most conspicuous Norwegians between Cloquet and Two Harbors—promised everyone in St. Olaf's Fellowship Hall that there would be no break in lutefisk continuity; his family would step in and carry on the brutal Scandinavian tradition for the benefit of the entire Twin Ports region.

    Never mind that neither Gustaf, his wife, Elin, nor his children had ever even seen a live whitefish before, much less caught one, pounded it, dried it, soaked it in lye, resoaked it in cold water, or done the careful cooking required to make something that, when perfectly prepared, looked like jellied smog and smelled like boiled aquarium water. Since everyone in the house was equally unqualified for the job, the work fell to Lars, age twelve, and his younger brother Jarl, age ten, sparing the youngest sibling, nine-year-old Sigmund, but only because he actually liked the stuff.

    "If Lars and Jarl don't like it," Gustaf told Elin, "I can count on them not to eat any. It'll eliminate loss and breakage."

    Gustaf was satisfied with this reasoning, and while Elin still thought it was a mean thing to do to their young sons, she said nothing. Theirs was a mixed-race marriage—between a Norwegian and a Dane—and thus all things culturally important to one but not the other were given a free pass and critiqued only in unmixed company.

    • • •

    Yearly intimate contact with their cultural heritage failed to evolve the Thorvald boys' sensibilities. Jarl, who still ate his own snot, much preferred the taste of boogers to lutefisk, given that the consistency and color were the same. Lars, meanwhile, was stumped by the old Scandinavian women who walked up to him in church and said, "Any young man who makes lutefisk like you do is going to be quite popular with the ladies." In Lars's experience, lutefisk skills usually inspired revulsion or, at best, indifference among prospective dates....

About the Author-
  • J. Ryan Stradal is the author of New York Times bestseller Kitchens of the Great Midwest and national bestseller The Lager Queen of Minnesota. He is a contributing editor at TASTE Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Granta, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in Los Angeles, where he co-hosts a culinary-themed reading series called Hot Dish. He has also worked as a TV producer, notably for Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Narrators Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg serve up a delicious debut novel about a young woman who triumphs over adversity to become a world-renowned chef. Evocative descriptions and a gift for character development weave this relatively simple story into so much more. Eva's character develops indirectly as a quirky cast of family members and friends, all with connections to the Midwest "foodie" community, present different chapters. Ryan and Stuhlbarg shine as they use subtle pacing and tone to portray the unique personalities of each character, adding just the slightest hints of a Midwestern accent to give authenticity and differentiation. Stradal's skillful writing delivered by accomplished narrators offers listeners a debut performance to savor. M.O.B. © AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine
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    All copies of this title, including those transferred to portable devices and other media, must be deleted/destroyed at the end of the lending period.

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest
A Novel
J. Ryan Stradal
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