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Review: 'Kitchens of the Great Midwest' a satisfying literary meal

Published Aug. 5, 2015

Daughter of a chef and a sommelier, born in the early years of a revolution in how Americans eat, Eva Thorvald is a child of culinary destiny.

In J. Ryan Stradal's captivating debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest, Eva is the character around whom everything revolves, the main dish in a tasty literary meal. Rising from childhood tragedy to develop an extraordinary palate and a driving ambition, Eva cooks up a unique fate for herself, a modern fairy tale that foodies will want to believe.

Kitchens is a novel but reads more like a group of connected short stories, skipping over sizable chunks of time between chapters and, in each one, introducing a new cast of characters, many of them linked only by their association with Eva.

Oddly, Eva almost vanishes from the book in its later chapters, staying mostly off stage as other characters miss her, love her, obsess about her. Fortunately those characters are engaging too, with engrossing stories of their own that Stradal sauces in lively prose and stirs together to bring the book to a close.

The chapter titles in Kitchens all relate to food, and it begins with "Lutefisk," a chapter that sounds a bit like the news from Lake Wobegon on A Prairie Home Companion. Eva's father, Lars Torvald, had a miserable adolescence, thanks to his father's insistence that Lars and his brother Jarl supplement the family business, a bakery, by making prodigious amounts of malodorous lutefisk "that, when perfectly prepared, looked like jellied smog and smelled like boiled aquarium water." Thanks to that job, Lars' high school nickname is "Fish Boy."

Somehow, though, that doesn't put him off cooking. Indeed, he decides to become a chef, and by age 28 he has done it, working at a trendy restaurant in Minnesota's Twin Cities in the late 1980s. There he meets Cynthia Hargreaves, who's waiting tables but has an intuitive understanding of wines that ensures her rapid rise. Lars falls in love with her during a conversation about pesto and sweet corn.

They honeymoon in Napa Valley, and a few months later Eva is born: "When Lars first held her, his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread and he would never get it back."

However, Lars' practical parenting skills are limited, as we see in the menu he makes up for Eva's first months, which includes guacamole and olive tapenade the first week and assumes that by 12 weeks she'll have teeth and be ready for osso buco. She'll be a food prodigy, but not quite that soon.

There's little time for Lars and Eva to savor family life, though. Within a few months, Cynthia has abandoned them, running off with a dashing sommelier to Australia, or maybe New Zealand. And before Eva is a year old, Lars is gone, too.

We meet Eva next at age 11. She has been adopted by Lars' brother Jarl and his wife, Fiona. Bullied at school — she's tall and gawky and the mean girls call her "Sasquatch" — she also has a highly refined palate and is already running her own business, raising scorching chocolate habanero peppers in her closet and selling them to restaurants. She got her grow lights from her beloved Cousin Randy, a former (he swears) drug dealer who looks like "a scarier Trent Reznor" and serves as Eva's protector and liaison to the restaurant industry. Eva's peppers not only put her on a career path, they become an original means of dealing with her bullies.

"Chocolate Habanero" is the only chapter told through Eva's point of view. The rest of the chapters focus on various friends, suitors and associates in the world of food as her career takes off. She rapidly progresses from a first restaurant job that she talks her way into while still a high school goth girl to legendary status by the time she is "a grand, luminous twenty-four-year-old" creating popup dinners a few times a year for select diners who pay $5,000 a plate to eat her "indescribable" food in challenging locations: "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." Despite the price, the online waiting list for a seat at "the Dinner" is 295 years long.

Stradal couches Eva's career in terms of the wave of changes in how we dine: celebrity chefs, local sourcing, heirloom crops, knowing exactly which lake that walleye on your plate was caught in. What's more, he manages to do so knowledgeably without being pretentious about it (except when a character is). And Eva's food, and story, are always tied to tradition as well, from the venison bought from a young hunter trying desperately to cope with his mother's death to the prize-winning peanut butter bar cookies proudly baked by a middle-aged homemaker. (Don't worry, the recipe is in the book.)

The ending of Kitchens of the Great Midwest is as surprising and satisfying as a great meal. But you're still going to be hungry when you finish it.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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