- What: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
- Who: J. Ryan Stradal
- Pages: 310
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Subgenre: Food and drink
- Published: 2015
- The lit: of 5 flames
Make Your Butt Bigger Bars do more than expand my derriere. They fill me with warmth; they make me nostalgic; they make me feel homesick, grateful, and loved. My mom’s signature bars, which have traversed half a country to impress the finicky minds of New Yorkers, might seem like a gluttonous Midwestern treat to the outside, but if you’ve had the pleasure of indulging in one, you know their power: They transform your soul.
That capability of food is the core of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which makes it a relatable and beautiful read. As a young food savant grows into a powerhouse chef, she takes the most important ingredients and meals in her life with her to the next chapter (literally and figuratively). This love affair with food heightened my senses of sight, smell, and taste (not to mention induced perpetual hunger), but I struggled to follow the book’s plot and connect the characters. To Stradal’s credit, though, he has a way of filling in the gaps right when it matters the most: the very end.
I picked up Kitchens of the Great Midwest from Barnes and Noble about a month ago for two reasons: It involved food and took place in the Midwest, where I spent 22 lovely years. The book indirectly follows the life of Eva Thorvald, whose father has passed on to her his love of food. After she’s born in Minnesota, he even creates a menu for his baby. Week one consists of pureed prunes, olive tapenade, and homemade Honeycrisp applesauce. Things get really complex in week 12 when he plans on feeding Eva pork shoulder and osso buco.
After experiencing some traumatic moments that shape Eva’s life as a food extraordinaire, the story follows her through the eyes of individual characters, who each have unique, one-off experiences with her (her cousin, a high school fling, a frenemy who shared Eva’s love interest, a boyfriend’s brother, and the said fling’s mom who makes the best bars in the county). These moments, and the food involved with them, culminate in one hell of a feast where the characters dine together without knowing their fellow companions’ connections to the now-famous chef. As Dawn Drzal wrote in her New York Times review, Kitchens of the Midwest tells more than Eva’s story, “but also a gastronomic portrait of a region…” This is by far the best part of the read.
I also love the book’s connection toward food. Any time you meet up with a long-lost friend, need a venting session, or simply desire some girl time, there’s one thing that’s always involved: food. And that’s because food heals all wounds, lifts spirits, and brings people together; it’s how we relate to other people. Make Your Butt Bigger Bars have been known to end fights and even make people smile at work–that’s no easy feat! Stradal nails that sentiment. It’s food that reconnects a broken family, has a first row view of breakups and laughter, and it’s food that teaches the characters something about other people. Food is a one-woman show in this story.
“…Even though you won’t meet her tonight, she’s telling her life story through the ingredients in the meal, and although you won’t shake her hand, you’ve shared her heart.” — Kitchens of the Great Midwest
While I didn’t have mixed emotions about all the food (that feeling has been constant for 25 years), I was puzzled by parts of the story’s structure. Each chapter is named after a food that ultimately plays a role in Eva’s life, and they follow a different person and his or her individual kitchen and food skills, whether that be a specific variety of corn for a supper club or the most basic of ingredients in a mom’s award-winning dessert. I like the variety this added, even more so now that I’m reflecting on it, because it proves that everyone has their own special way of doing things in the kitchen.
But it does make for some confusion when determining the plot. Chapters end without fleshing out a character’s story; a few even finish mid-scene. It was sort of like those Valentine’s Day and Love Actually-type movies except that it didn’t come back to a character. I didn’t understand where the story where was going until the final chapter. Then, I felt something magical happen, but the first 250 pages were frustrating.
Drzal also felt felt my pain (and relief) with this interesting formula: “Such a narrative structure is unusual, but her absence creates in us a sense of thwarted desire … It’s an impressive feat of narrative jujitsu, allowing us to close the book identifying with someone we’ve spent most of the novel hating.”
I don’t fully agree that Stradal was exposing his jujitsu prowess or that I hated Eva throughout the book. Being able to tie everything together at the end, however, solidified this novel’s three flames.
And in case you were wondering, my mom’s Make Your Butt Bigger Bars can’t even be contained in five flames.
“After decades away from the Midwest, she’d forgotten that bewildering generosity was a common regional tic.” — Kitchens of the Great Midwest