From lutefisk to chocolate habanero: Midwest ingredients infuse delicious novel

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

Daytona Strong
Norwegian American Weekly

As a writer at work on my own book, I follow news of book deals pretty closely, particularly when they involve food. When the sale of Kitchens of the Great Midwest was announced some months back—a work of fiction whose hook happened to mention lutefisk—I kept it on my radar. J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel will be released this month, and it’s perfect summer reading.

The story traces the life of Eva Thorvald, a contemporary chef whose pop-up dinners—often in extraordinary locales—garner years-long waiting lists. The story itself is intriguing, and the book combines the page-turning appeal of a narrative arc with an atypical structure that leaves the reader feeling intimately acquainted with each and every one of the characters as they help tell Eva’s story. By the end, it becomes clear that while food creates the structure and the reason for the story, it’s only the beginning of a tale of so much more.

Stradal shared with me the origins of the story and his own experiences with Scandinavian and Midwestern food.

Daytona Strong: What was your inspiration for the characters’ Scandinavian roots?

J. Ryan Stradal: My grandmother on my mom’s side is Swedish and Norwegian, and growing up in Minnesota, a person is exposed to some Scandinavian culture whether or not they share the heritage. To me, to set a novel largely in Minnesota meant that my characters would encounter Scandinavian food and traditions, and considering that Eva Thorvald ends up as a celebrated contemporary chef, it was important to me that she also be rooted in her home state’s culinary history.

DS: What’s your personal (and honest!) take on lutefisk? Do you eat it?

JRS: Growing up, we ate lefse regularly during Advent, but lutefisk was much less common—I don’t think enough people in my family liked it! I believe that my great-grandfather Gust Johnson may have been the keeper of that flame, and he died while I was in preschool, so other than the occasional Lutheran church dinner, it was largely absent from my upbringing. Two Christmases ago, in the name of research for this novel, I ate lutefisk for the first time in about 25 years. I may have changed since I last tried it, but I was relieved to know that lutefisk has remained the same.

DS: Why food? The story is obviously about so much more than food, so why was this the thing that you chose to tie it all together?

JRS: Food ties a lot of people together who otherwise may not have much in common. No political party or religion has a monopoly on healthy, interesting, or delicious food. Establishing a narrative that emphasized each character’s relationship to food meant that I could write about many different kinds of people.

DS: How did the idea of the book—and its structure—develop and unfold?

JRS: When I first sat down to write the book, I had it in my head that I’d start with an opulent, elaborate dinner party and work backwards, telling the stories of the guests at that dinner party—all of whom would be friends of the chef—either members of her family or of what I’d call her family of choice. Although I veered from that structure (not every POV character ends up at the dinner, and there are several people at the dinner who do not have their own chapters), I remained interested in how the dinner guests, and the ingredients to the meal itself, formed their own narrative over the timeline of the chef’s life. When it became clear early on that Eva was the focal point, I adjusted the narrative to emphasize her story.

DS: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

JRS: I hope they find something to like about it and at least one character they relate to, particularly if the reader is a Midwesterner. Like a lot of writers, I set out to write a book I would buy if it already existed, and one of the things most important to me was to write a book set in the part of the world I grew up in, populated with the kinds of people I grew up among. There are many amazing Midwestern writers and books set in the Midwest, but I still feel that it’s underrepresented as a setting.

I’d also be curious if people tried any of the recipes. Five of the eight are based on recipes found in the 1984 edition of the church cookbook from my great-grandmother’s Lutheran church in Hunter, North Dakota. I just made the chicken and wild rice hot dish the other day.

DS: What is the book about, to you?

JRS: To me, Kitchens is a love letter to my home state, to the people I grew up with, and also to the people I knew like myself from small towns, who wanted to be part of a larger world without repudiating or forgetting their background. I hadn’t seen a lot of characters in fiction that resembled the people I grew up around, and I really wanted to dramatize the range of Midwesterners I’ve known and loved over the years. Kitchens is not a food novel; it’s a story about family and how a person like Eva develops and nurtures a family of choice from among the people closest to her.

See Family history in church cookbooks for a recipe from the author’s family.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal, will be released July 28, 2015 (Viking/Pamela Dorman Books).

This article originally appeared in the July 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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