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Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Published by Pamela Dorman Books ISBN 978-0-525-42914-2
Hardcover, $27.95, 310 pages
J. Ryan Stradal's novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest received a great deal of buzz at last year's Book Expo of America (BEA) and for good reason: it's one terrific book.
It's also hard to describe, there is not a lot I can compare it to. His voice is unique, and the way in which he tells the story of young Eva, a girl with an incredible ability to be able to eat the hottest, spiciest foods imaginable, is spellbinding.
When you read Kitchens of the Great Midwest, you think you know where it is going, and then Stradal takes the reader on a detour. For awhile, you are not even quite sure whose story he is going to be telling, but you sit back and enjoy the ride.
The story is set in Minnesota, where a mixed race marriage is considered one between a Norwegian and a Dane. We think the story is about Lars, a chef who falls in love with Cynthia, who wants to be a sommelier. They have a daughter, Eva, whom Lars absolutely dotes upon.
Then we skip ahead eleven years to find Eva on the brink of adolescence. She grows hot peppers at home and gets a job working in a restaurant. She doesn't really fit in with her peers.
You just get comfortable with Eva, and we jump ahead to Braque, Eva's single-mindedly athletic cousin. Will this be Braque's story then? It doesn't really matter, the book is that consuming.
Each chapter has the name of a food- Chocolate Habanero, Walleye, Sweet Pepper Jelly-culminating with the Dinner chapter where the story comes full circle. There are some terrific recipes in the book, including some for county fair dessert bar contestants like Mississippi Mud Bars and Pat Prager's Peanut Butter Bars which had won five times. (I will be trying both of these.)
For someone who only knows Minnesota from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I like how this novel immerses you in the culture, the language, the people and the food of the region. It's Stradal's love letter to his home.
We get to know Eva's story through the people around her, much like we got to know Olive Kittridge through the stories of the people in her orbit in Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Eva is somewhat inscrutable, but also incredibly interesting.
If you are willing to try a book that is a little bit different, you will be rewarded with fascinating characters in a story that stays with you for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Pat Prager's Peanut Butter Bars
2 1/2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
1 cup melted Grade A butter
1 cup peanut butter
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup milk chocolate chips with 1 teaspoon Grade A butter
Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, peanut butter, and sugar. Put into a greased 9x13 pan. Melt the chips and butter and spread them on top of the bars. Set in the refrigerator until firm. Cut into bars.