In the Kitchen

Food fascinates us. Food is the human experience. It spans the spectrum from poverty and soup kitchens to privileged cuisine. Food binds people--tying together cultures, histories and heritages. Many of the greatest conversations take place in the kitchen or around a table. In that tradition comes another foodie novel by a new author trying his hand with the culinary themes.

"Kitchens of the Great Midwest" is a medley of stories. Author J. Ryan Stradal is presenting a literary meal consisting of part-drama, part-recipe, and part culture as he delves into the American heartland in this story of a female chef, Eva Thorvald, who rises to become the most sought after in the world.

Midwestern chef, Lars Thorvald, father of Eva, is the first character you meet in the book. For those who have seen the movie, Fargo, Thorvald is reminiscent of the idiomatic and slightly off-beat country man (in this case from Minnesota) who school kids refer to as, "Fish Boy" because he smells of his family business which is preparing "lutefisk," a Scandanavian form of whitefish.

Lars marries Cynthia, who leaves him to pursue a career in wine. (Fear not. She leaves the story but returns to the kitchen in a recurring theme about the importance of one's "origins.") Lars is left to raise their baby. In his bumbling fashion, he attempts to feed baby Eva things like "braised pork and corn dogs. "In the same fashion that a musical parent may curate their child's exposure to certain songs, Lars had spent weeks plotting a menu for his baby daughter's first months."

Eva, who ends up being raised by Lars' brother and sister-in-law, has an early passion for food and takes up the hobby of growing chile plants with a grow light in her closet. "Unlike her, they were beautiful in a way that God intended. The tallest chocolate haberno plant came to her waist, and its firm green stalks held families of glistening, gorgeous brown chiles at the end of its growing cycle." Eva uses her culinary prowess and her ability to withstand extremely hot foods to win contests and earn money, entering spicy competitions like "The Circle of Hell Wings" pitting herself against men who turn out to be "chickens" when it comes to eating. "Eva picked up the four wings in turn, and with the beautiful focus of a woodpecker boring a hole, she completely cleaned them back to front in just over a minute, setting down the fleshless bones in a neat little row."

Suffice it to say that Eva becomes a famous chef in a tasty tale filled with sweet pepper jelly, walleye fish, venison, rhubarb and every kind of tomato you've ever heard of. With her cousins, she ends up running a top-rated farm-to-table restaurant that draws a unique set of foodies, friends, and family. Along the way you are treated to sweet corn succotash, organic red peppers, wine pairings, pork shoulders, pie and a million other "delicacies."

Like a well-prepared meal, it is not always advisable to peer into the kitchen where the author prepares the story. Half-way through the novel, it falls apart like a Baked Alaska when the meringue doesn't bake long enough. The story is tender in some places with a bit too much fluff in others. Eva is a great character but her knowledge of food becomes exhausting. "Oh, boy." Eva swallowed a bite and looked up at Jobe. "Let's see. Parsley. Lemon. Rosemary. Black pepper. Salt. And I think it's cooked in butter and something else, some kind of fat or tallow, maybe."

In fairness, the book picks up at the end when the grand meal is served and all the previous chapters of menus and characters come together in a bittersweet conclusion. The book will whet your appetite for cooking but, as a novel, it is less than fulfilling. Then, again, maybe the idea is to leave you hungry for the sequel.

Tara Sonenshine writes about culinary diplomacy and the use of food as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.

For more information about this book/author:

• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books (July 28, 2015)
• Agent: Ryan Harbage ryan@fischerharbage.com
• ISBN-10: 052542914X
• ISBN-13: 978-052542914