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Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal

The story opens with Lars Thorvald and his virginity due to his long-standing family affair with lutefisk. Finally in his 20s, he falls in love with Cynthia over pesto. Their daughter, Eva, is born in 1989 and Lars immediately starts her on a life-long food journey with pureed shoulder roast, among other things. Unfortunately, Cynthia is considerably less interested in her own child and soon exits the picture. Adding to that, Lars passes away soon after and Eva is raised by her loving, but less food conscious, aunt and uncle. The rest of the story shows how she rises in society through her incredible palate and food sense.

This story started off very interesting and stayed that way until about the half point. At roughly 50% of the way through the book, Eva is no longer the main character, but rather a side character that the main characters are all talking about. Because of that shift, I found the second half of the book way less interesting. The entire book is made up of connected stories. Each story could probably be read on its own. While this worked for the first half of the book, where each of the stories featured Eva, it didn’t work so well for the second half of the book.

There’s tons of great food in this book and anecdotal info on how to make such great food. I loved watching Eva explore the foodie world, especially after she got a job at a decent restaurant. As a kid, she had this crazy tolerance for hot foods and because of that, hot peppers were the things she explored first. From there, it went to tomatoes, and then fresh caught fish, and onward. Eva’s love of food takes her into circles she never expected to be and her honest unpretentiousness makes her an oddity in the foodie world.

Eva’s also got this whole convoluted family thing going on. She’s raised by her aunt and uncle, though they decided to never tell her she was adopted and for much of her childhood, she knows them as her parents. Lars, her real dad, is in turn referred to as her uncle. Then we toss in the cousins Brock and Randy. For a while there, I was confused about who were the parents to Brock and Randy, but eventually that becomes clear. Brock is such a fun character! She’s a total jock and about 8 years older than Eva. She is so blunt! I just loved the chapters with her.

Later in the book, as Eva becomes less of the focus, the chapters explore more and more how people use food to separate themselves from others – a kind of food snobbery. There’s some very interesting characters in these chapters but I never got attached to them like I did with the recurring characters in the first half of the book. Finally, Eva and some of her friends have established this elite pop up exclusive supper deal. They pick a place, set up a guest list, charge a large amount of money, and serve a really decent meal. Then they clear it all away and do it again when they want to. The on-line waiting list is long and can take years to get your name called. While I found this a very interesting idea, we never get to see what Eva truly thinks about it all because she’s no longer the focus. I was a bit sad that we no longer had access to her thoughts on such things.

All together it was a quirky story with some highlights and a few memorable characters.

The Narration: Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg both did great jobs with this book. They had distinct voices for all the characters. I loved Ryan’s voice for the character Brock. Both had that Minnesota Scandinavian swing in their voice for all the characters that required it.