Characters take readers through culture _lowres

"Kitchens of the Great Midwest" by J. Ryan Stradal

“Kitchens of the Great Midwest” by J. Ryan Stradal. Viking, 2015. $25

Before I start this review, you should know: I love food. I love making it, eating it, reading about it … you get the idea. I pretty much picked up “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” for this reason alone. I didn’t expect much from the book beyond pleasant talk about food, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel is structured around Eva Thorvald, but we are first introduced to her father, a chef in Minnesota. When we meet Eva, she is a baby, and her father, Lars, is intent on passing on his love of food to her.

The next chapter in her life, and in the book, is narrated by 11-year-old Eva herself, which gives us a good insight into her feisty personality. Beyond that chapter, we don’t hear directly from Eva again, but only from people surrounding her. Sometimes they are very close to her — her cousin, her first boyfriend — but others are only tertiary. In either case, they give us interesting insight into the budding chef.

I found it interesting how invested I became in these other characters after merely one chapter. They are all very different, but Stradal does a great job filling them in and making them into people you care about. I was always frustrated when the next chapter began and I had to leave them behind. Luckily, some of them were revisited through their involvement in subsequent characters’ lives.

I don’t know much about the “Great Midwest,” but I felt like I gained some knowledge of the culture from this book. Most of the characters were down-to-earth people who appreciate family and a good peanut butter bar.

However, this brings me to my only qualm with the book. From what we learn about Eva, she shares these Midwestern values, but she ends up being a celebrity chef who hosts exclusive dinner parties costing thousands of dollars, which didn’t seem in line with her character to me. But then again, we get less insight into her personality than we would in a traditionally formatted novel, so perhaps the author meant to leave a little mystery in her character. In the end, “Kitchens” comes full circle, without being wrapped up too neatly.

Ellen Zielinski, Baton Rouge