Born and raised in Minnesota, Stradal currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is the fiction editor at the online culture magazine The Nervous Breakdown, an editor-at-large for indie publisher Unnamed Press, and co-producer of the literary/culinary Hot Dish Reading Series. He also volunteers and serves on the advisory board for the educational nonprofit 826LA and is on the curatorial board for LitCrawl LA. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and McSweeney’s, among other publications.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is “beautifully structured and affectionately and hilariously written,” said Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York.
“In the story of Midwestern chef savant Eva Thorvald and the people — and foods — that touch her life, Stradal has created a picture of the American foodie revolution of the past 25 years and of its intersections with class, economics, family, and culture,” said Stockton Bagnulo. “Along with irresistible characters and stories, this is a novel about the potential that food and cooking offer for joy and empowerment, for snobbery and shame, and for identity and reinvention.”
Where did the inspiration for Kitchens of the Great Midwest come from?
J. Ryan Stradal: I’d been thinking about the characters and setting for years before I started writing. While I initially planned to tell the story of a dinner party through the eyes of the guests, I’d also always wanted to write a novel set in my home state of Minnesota. I feel it’s a state comparatively underrepresented in literature, and I know it well, love it, and, quite frankly, it was what I wanted to write about every day when I woke up.
So much of main character Eva Thorvald’s story is told through the perspective of other people. Tell us about Eva’s evolution, both through the eyes of the characters who know her and through your own.
JRS: To me, Eva is an inspiration. I wish I were more like her. She developed a sense of identity and confidence at a young age and pursued her dreams without circumspection. To the people in her life, she becomes increasingly remote commensurate to her rise in fame and notoriety, and that’s reflected in each chapter viewing her at an increased distance, culminating with a final chapter told from the point of view of someone who only knows her legend and reputation. I think she’s very much the same person throughout the book — in her early 20s, she makes some mistakes in terms of who she falls in love with, like a lot of us — but she’s a very focused and independent young woman, and even the characters that dislike her have some respect for her.
What can you say about Midwestern cuisine to the novice who might not have familiarity with regional dishes like lutefisk and walleye?
JRS: With the likely exception of lutefisk, you’ll love it! If you’re unfamiliar with the regional cuisine of the Midwest, I hope you’ll give at least a few of the recipes in the book a try. And if you can make it to the Minnesota State Fair, it’s highly advised. The fair is to Midwestern food what a roller coaster is to a swing set.
As a passionate fan of comfort food, where did your love of different cuisines come from? What are some of your first childhood memories surrounding your great kitchen?
JRS: Growing up, we didn’t have an incredibly diverse kitchen and didn’t eat out very often, so the comfort food I talk about in the book was pretty much all I knew. Once I could drive, I broadened my palate somewhat by exploring the unusual and ethnic restaurants of the Twin Cities, but as a little kid, my favorite foods were the rhubarb pies and sweet corn that I didn’t yet know were also specific, enduring specialties of my home region.
Hot Dish, your reading series on comfort food and wine that features Los Angeles-based writers and artists pays homage to the single-dish casserole popular in the upper Midwest. Are there any similarities between L.A. and Midwestern comfort food?
JRS: Ha! L.A. sure liked to put bacon in everything for a while there. Perhaps Minnesota experienced this hipster bistro trend as well, but they were putting meat in everything long before it was trendy. Also, today, craft beer and microbrews are enthusiastically embraced, and splendidly created, in each region. The proximity to farms in each area also makes the “farm-to-table” designation a little more peculiar and specific than it may be in other cities.
Discovering a great recipe is like happening upon a great story. How do you go about finding great independent bookstores?
JRS: Often how people discover great books — word of mouth. In Los Angeles, a lot of the great indie bookstores also have good restaurants and bars within walking distance, so if I show up early to meet someone for dinner, I’ll look at the map on my phone and see how close the nearest one is. There’s no place I’d rather pass the time.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking/Pam Dorman Books, Hardcover, 9780525429142) Publication Date: July 28, 2015.
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