Kitchens of the Great Midwest
J. Ryan Stradal
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (use code CT813)
EVA THORVELD is a gawky, outgrown girl, abandoned by her mother and estranged from her Minnesota surroundings. But, as a kind of accidental legacy from her obsessive chef-father, she has been blessed — more or less from the day she was born — with a world-class palate.
By the age of 11, she is growing, in her bedroom cupboard, the hottest chocolate habanero chillies in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul, supplying them to a restaurant, and using them as a revenge against the school bullies. And so, in J. Ryan Stradal’s quirky debut novel, we watch her erratic rise to the status of food hero.
This terrain has recognisable features, if you are familiar with Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories: Lutefisk as a malodorous emblem of Scandinavian heritage, cut-throat Lutheran church bake-offs, vast spaces, and small lives.
The comparison with Keillor should not be overcooked: Stradal is more astringent, less home-baked, but they share a relish for the comedy of idiosyncrasies, for oddball characters.
Take Pat Prager, of Deer Lake’s First Lutheran church: her peanut-butter bars have swept the board for years, but she finds her eminence threatened by a glamorous incomer. Beneath the comic crust, there is often something darker (Pat’s teenage son deals dope to his high-school contemporaries, for instance).
The twin heroes of the novel are Eva and food. Relatively little of the narrative comes from her point of view: both she and her cooking are observed and experienced by a cast of often strangely interlinked players. Indeed, Eva can be absent for long stretches, merely flitting into their lives in almost ghostly appearances. The food is a constant, however; there are even recipes scattered throughout the storytelling.
And behind all this are the shifts in metropolitan attitudes to food which have taken place during the past two or three decades, from devouring it as fuel and nutrition to worshipping it as art and theatre, replete with neurosis and pretension — all ironically skewered by the author.
This is an eccentric smorgasbord of a novel, with an unusual narrative structure that will not be to everyone’s taste. But I found it hugely enjoyable, and it is undeniably a fictional feast for foodies.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a full-time freelance writer and editor.