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review 2020-08-04 18:34
'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' by J. Ryan Stradal - highly recommended.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal,Caitlin Thorburn

I fell in love with the cover and the title and the conceit that the book is built around but I half expected to be disappointed, so many books don't live up to their covers and so many clever conceits turn into pedestrian prose, but instead, I was deeply impressed by 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. So much so that I immediately bought Stradal's second novel 'The Lager Queen Of Minnesota' (another great cover and catchy title but this time my expectations are high).

 

The life of Eva Thorvald, from her conception onwards, is le fil rouge that stitches together 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. Eva's life provides a sense of connection and continuity but, except for one chapter, when she is ten turning elven, Eva's is not the main focus of the book. Each chapter of the book is focused on and told from the point of view of someone whose life has touched Eva's. Each chapter also involves a dish that Eva will use by the end of the book. 

 

It's easy to imagine how disjointed and burdensome a story structure like that could become but Stradal makes it work brilliantly. He never lets the structure distract from the narrative, like seeing a puppet's strings. He uses it as a trellis, helping the story climb higher. 

 

I think it works so well because each new character is at the centre of their own world, is fully and empathetically imagined and has their own distinctive voice. As each person's story is told, we get only the most indirect view of Eva, filtered through the passions and problems of the person the chapter is about but we get a deeply personal account of a key moment in each person's life and what it means to them. Each character's story is also linked to a dish which acts as a kind of emoji for the mood of the chapter, With each new dish we taste a new life and build up a sort of scent trail of intense flavours wrapped around memories of important moments.

 

Yet 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' comes together as something more than a set of thematically linked short stories. The novel has a shape of its own. The effect reminds me of how Hockney amalgamated polaroids for his self-portrait.

 

Food and food culture are central to the story. Eva has a once-in-a-generation palet and an extreme tolerance for hot spices. Her obsession with sourcing and making perfect dishes coincides with the rise of Foodie culture in the US. I enjoyed watching her lead the charge in sourcing fresh food and getting perfect flavours by having perfect ingredients. I also enjoyed the chapter where we were shown the Foodie culture grown into a pretentious, intolerant cult that was unable to recognise the love in traditional home cooking. 

 

One of the things that I loved about 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' was how accessible the book is. The writing is engaging, honest, compassionate and deceptively simple. It made me smile and it made me cry but it never made me feel manipulated. 

 

Here's an example. When we meet the man who will be Eva's father, he is a chef who, after an extended period of involuntary celibacy, caused mainly by spending his teens stinking of cod from making Lutefisk, finally falls for a waitress with 'strong erroneous food opinions.' His reaction to his good fortune made me smile:

 

'He couldn't help it. He was in love by the time she left the kitchen but love made him feel sad and doomed as usual.'

 

I recommend the audiobook version of 'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' which was perfectly narrated by Caitlin Thorburn. Go here to hear a sample of Audible.

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text 2020-07-21 12:23
Reading progress update: I've read 67%.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal,Caitlin Thorburn

I'm deeply impressed by this book.

 

Except for one chapter, when she's ten turning elven, this is not the story of Eva's life. It's the story of the people whose lives she passes through and yet it doesn't feel disjointed.

 

Each chapter gives me a taste of a new life and each one is full of flavour. Nothing feels forced but each chapter adds a flavour to the dish and each flavour is like a triggered memory.

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text 2020-07-19 11:23
Reading progress update: I've read 25%.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal,Caitlin Thorburn Stradal uses a clever structure for his novel: each chapter focused on a different character and related to a different dish while carrying the story forward. I'm impressed that he never lets the structure distract from the narrative, like seeing a puppet's strings. He uses it as a trellis, helping the story climb higher. It works because each new character is at the centre of their own world and has their own voice and because the dish functions mainly as a sort of emoji
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text 2020-07-17 22:10
Reading progress update: I've read 11%.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal,Caitlin Thorburn

One chapter in and this reads like a foodie version of ´Lake Webegoné.

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text 2020-07-16 10:54
Reading progress update: I've read 7%.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal,Caitlin Thorburn

For a man passionate about food and his baby daughter, our hero is almost unbelievably... naive? unworldly? ignorant about basic facts about infants? To believe in him, I have to think of him as one on those men where other people say, 'He's a nice guy, but...' all the time.

The American food keeps surprising me. He's using his mother's recipes, which are rich in canned goods and use canned soup as a basis for a casserole. I had to look up 'salad oil' and it turned out to include at least three of the oils in my kitchen. I know the couple with a new baby are short of time and money but why would they make Macaroni Cheese from a box when it takes less twenty minutes to make from scratch with dried pasta? And how does a chef not know the varieties of tomato but can name four different kinds of carrot?

This is an education on American food before the emergence of a foodie culture. I feel like a kid raised with iPhones being presented with a rotary dial telephone. Except I lived through this period but in the UK and we never had food like this.

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