County Fare

Hearing the name Eva Thorvald, you might expect to find the central character of J. Ryan Stradal’s first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Pamela Dorman Books, $28), smack in the middle of a multigenerational family saga as styled by Ingmar Bergman in full Fanny and Alexander mode: Scandinavian abundance with a dark existential underbelly, the kaleidoscopic shifting apart and coming back together of lovers, spouses, and siblings—and especially of parents and children—and plenty of feasts to mark the passage of time. Actually, though, Eva’s a product of that other Scandinavia in miniature—familiar to us all, thanks to Garrison Keillor—known as the American Midwest. Thorvald père, named Lars, is raised, according to family tradition, in Duluth, Minnesota, to become expert at “the tragic hobby of lutefisk preparation.” When he decides he’s had the stench of lye on his hands long enough, he skips out on his father’s expectations, as well as college at one of the prescribed Lutheran institutions nearby, and flees “down to the Cities, looking for a girlfriend and kitchen work in whatever order, requiring only that no one insist he make lutefisk.” It’s 1978, and he wants to become a chef.

“The Cities,” of course, are St. Paul and Minneapolis. And while they may be a bit of a stretch as stand-ins for Stockholm and Oslo (unless you’re counting inches of snowfall per year), these particular twin metropolises beautifully serve Stradal’s dual purpose of telling a good story and also capturing a moment in time. When it comes to plot, he has the rest of Bergman’s formula down: His first chapter alone hurtles through birth, betrayal, rampant sibling rivalry, abandonment, and death, with a side of braised pork shoulder (some ten years on, Lars has achieved his culinary dreams). Later come cousins and more romances and parties and jealousies galore. But Stradal has also written, if I’m not mistaken, the first novel about the emergence and current state of foodie culture in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

As such, it seems just right that it’s set not in the shinier, more extreme cities that are by now easy targets for parody when it comes to eating and cooking (hello, New York and San Francisco—and Portland and Berkeley, you’re smaller but no less guilty), but in the part of the country where we now look for what’s coming next, not least because it’s still inexpensive enough to support experiments. Delving deep into the local surroundings also allows Stradal, whose fine command of the details proves his native status, to expand his cast of characters beyond the cutting edge of cuisine. They include earnest churchgoing bakers who enter their recipes in county-fair contests as well as people who don’t care at all about food and are just fine with that fact. Chief among this last group is Lars’s brother, Jarl, with whom Lars has the following exchange during a discussion of why, exactly, Lars’s wife, Cynthia, an aspiring sommelier, has failed to call home from a wine tour in northern California:

“None of the big places in Napa saw them,” Lars said from his easy chair. Eva was on his lap, sucking on the end of a turkey baster.

“Maybe they didn’t go to the big places,” Jarl said. “Or maybe they’re somewhere good, like Riunite.”

“Riunite’s not a place.”

“Yeah it is. It’s in here,” Jarl said, pointing to his heart. “Get over yourself and like something normal people like for once.”

Cynthia never does return home from Napa, though she does reappear at last, some twenty years later, as the novel is coming to a close (this is, after all, a family saga, so a certain amount of melodrama and a few set pieces are de rigueur). Before that reunion of sorts—and it is one of the pleasures of Stradal’s tale that, while he clearly believes in the redemptive power of food, he’s not sappy enough to try to convince us it can heal all wounds—we follow Eva, who has inherited her father’s palate and gifts in the kitchen, from childhood to her emergence as a wunderkind celebrity chef of more or less our present moment. The level of Eva’s fame is indicated by breathless exclamations from a smug foodie couple who receive a blank look when they mention her name: “You don’t know her? . . . She runs a pop-up supper club called The Dinner. We’ve already spent a year on the waiting list. She only does it four or five times a year. Always in a different place. One time it was on the edge of a cliff, and the guests had to rappel down the side for the main course. Once, it was in a boat that was rigged in place at the edge of a waterfall.” It almost goes without saying that, at the incarnation of The Dinner Stradal features at the end of his tale, there’s a couple in attendance who not only are on their honeymoon and arrive by canoe but have paid for their trip via Kickstarter.

Swallowtail Garden Seeds/Flickr

But Eva is more than just a chef with a reputation (“Thorvald’s table the toughest to get in USA,”as one headline proclaims). And that’s where Stradal’s story acquires a little more depth than it might otherwise have had. As much as she likes the new, she knows her roots lie with people like Pat Prager—she of the aforementioned sugar-scented, stifling-hot county-fair tents and homemade peanut-butter-graham-cracker bars. At the event where Pat and Eva first cross paths, a baking contest run by “a culinary lifestyle website” called Petite Noisette, Pat displays the kind of self-acceptance that can’t be faked no matter how many clicks your latest listicle gets. At sea in the ballroom of a Minneapolis hotel, amid things like “Raw No Bake” chocolate torte and vegan chocolate-chip-banana oatcakes, she steels herself: “If Pat’s bars somehow won over this crowd of picky eaters it would be because she once again met a test and overcame it. She had held on to her faith at the County Fair, and God blessed her; perhaps, in this strange land, He would bless her again.” I’d pick her over a blogger any day.

Because what Pat knows is that tradition matters in the same way that real sugar and the occasional dash of cream of tartar in your egg whites do. Everything old doesn’t need to be made new—some things work just fine the way they are, thank you very much. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is filled with descriptions of ritzy menus and innovative flavor combinations. There are a lot of people trying to one-up each other with ingredients, and I occasionally had the urge to smack them: “I often use okra. But green beans are in season locally.” “What kind of sweet corn did you use?” “I think it’s Northern Xtra Sweet Bicolor.” The catch is that some of Stradal’s people cook well for all the wrong reasons, and others cook very badly—including a young man who, in a memorable scene, botches a margarita for his dying mother—for all the right ones.

The difference between these two motivations is really Stradal’s point, regardless of what he’s putting on the plates. It’s not a new idea, and in trying to make the connection between food and emotion he sometimes veers away from showing us the kooky glories of his characters and the world they inhabit toward just flat-out telling us what he wants us to learn from them. To wit, this speech made on Eva’s behalf to the guests at The Dinner: “She’s told me that even though you won’t meet her tonight, she’s telling you her life story through the ingredients in this meal, and although you won’t shake her hand, you’ve shared her heart.” This is heavy-handed, not to mention unnecessary, as Eva has already conveyed the same sentiment herself much more clearly and movingly, some fifty pages earlier, at the Petite Noisette contest where she first meets Pat. Surrounded by chatter about toxins in butter and hormone-free milk, she says it all in a single sentence: “Pat, I haven’t had bars like those since I was a kid in Iowa.”

Fundamentally, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about what happens when opposing personalities coexist, either by choice, by necessity, or because they happen to come from the same gene pool: those who bake with real butter versus those who don’t, those who obsess over heirloom tomatoes alongside those who don’t even know what they are. It uses these categories as a way to look at one of the most confusing, liberating truths there is, which is that often the people we think we’re the least like are the ones we end up needing the most.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).