Review | Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Posted May 14, 2016 by Asheley in review / 0 Comments

Review | Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan StradalKitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Series: Standalone
Published by Pamela Dorman Books on July 28, 2015
Pages: 310
Source: Library
Narrator: Amy Ryan, Michael Stuhlbarg
Length: 10 hours, 7 minutes
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When Lars Thorvald's wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine--and a dashing sommelier--he's left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He's determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter--starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva's journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that's a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal's startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life--its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.


Sometimes when I read a book, I fall in love with it but I have a hard time knowing exactly why I loved it so much. Characterization, story structure, setting, writing style – it could be any combination of these things. Perhaps I read the book during a really great time in my life…or maybe I have a great memory attached to it. In the case of this book, it was a combination of all of the above. I read Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal for the first time in January 2016 on a flight both to and from Boston to see my dearest friends. I almost missed the plane once because I didn’t hear the announcement that it was time to board because, you know, reading. When I got to the end of the book, I loved it with a fierce, book-hugging love and yet I couldn’t quite pinpoint why exactly.

Note: This happens to me fairly often and is not a negative thing. It is, in fact, the opposite. It happens in the very best of circumstances and I would call these books: some of my favorites.

I needed to figure out exactly why I couldn’t stop thinking about this story, so I decided to reread, which was one of the best decisions ever. 

I added the audiobook to this reread and loved it even more. The thing that jumped out to me the most during my first read and even now is the structure of the story: the book starts out with Lars Thorvald, his wife Cynthia, and their new baby Eva. As we learn a little about Lars, we learn that he loves to cook, but not just anything – he loves good, quality food made from fresh ingredients. He wants his daughter Eva to grow up with a love for food that mirrors his, so from a very young age, he feeds her the best that he can afford. Food from scratch. Cynthia, Lars’ wife, grows bored with the all of the food and the baby stuff, and takes off to pursue a career as a sommelier. Lars is left to raise Eva with the help of family. From here, the story belongs to Eva — except that it sort of doesn’t.

See, after the first portion of the story centers around Lars, the second centers around someone else in Eva’s life, and so on and so forth. Each portion of the story – vignettes, really – has a main character that is not Eva even as she continues to remain the star and focal point of the story until the very end. So while she is never the main character at any time in the book, this is still her story. Her coming-of-age, if you will.

It is brilliant. I fell in love with this structure. Since I did not read any reviews or summaries or articles about Kitchens of the Great Midwest before I began it, this “new-to-me” style knocked me off of my feet as I moved through the book. I wasn’t expecting it, but wow, I really loved it. This is such a neat way to read about Eva growing up and coming into her own: through the eyes of the people around her.

Even though we spend only an abbreviated portion of the book with each character, I felt like I knew them well enough to enjoy them all. Sure, there are some that I felt like I knew a little bit better than others, but I think this was mainly because of personal favorites and preferences. I believe that each reader will “favorite” different portions of it, but every single section is equally essential because of the sequencing of Eva’s life and because of the placement of all of these characters along the way. (I will say that the first time I had favorites and some characters that I didn’t care for very much, but on the reread-with-audio, I loved the entire book and all of the characters.)

The Midwestern setting is super fun because it is so obviously Midwestern. I loved the traditions and customs and the accents and turns of phrases. The audiobook enhanced these things tremendously.

This book is charming. Very, very charming. And such a great story. I have been purposefully vague with plot points, characters, and pretty much everything else related to the book. The best thing about my reread (aside from the accents on the audiobook) was being able to pick up on little details that I missed the first time; knowing how the book ends let me relax a little bit and dig deeper for these little things and I loved making the deeper connections in this story because they were in there, waiting for me, where I glossed over them during my first read. Names dropped here and there, associations, things like that. These little secrets made me smile to myself as I read. And I feel like I know the characters even better after a second read, which is always a plus.

I’m not sure what J. Ryan Stradal has coming up for his next book, but I’m excited for it. And even after reading this one twice in a short period of time, I’m not ruling out yet another reread. I think this one goes on the “feel-good reads” shelf for me. This story makes me happy. I’d like to own a paperback copy of this book and I’d like for it to have tattered edges because I’ve returned to it often. I can see myself in so many of the non-Eva characters, and perhaps a teensy bit in Eva. Maybe that’s another reason that I love this story so much? I love Eva, I love that she is whip-smart, super cool without trying to be, she does her own thing even when it isn’t necessarily the coolest thing to do (like fangirl over food), and becomes successful and builds a career at what she loves. There is so much to love in this story, so much story here, and it is for both men and women. I love everything about it. I want everyone to read it. I think it is just THAT good.

Or perhaps I just happened to pick it up at the right time for me. Either way, I totally recommend it.

Audiobook Notes:

The audiobook format of Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is published by Penguin Audio and is 10 hours and 7 minutes, Unabridged. It is narrated by Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg who are both new to me as far as narration goes, but are absolutely perfect for their roles in this book. I cannot imagine having anyone else read these parts and found myself chuckling out loud throughout the book at their delivery during the humorous places and with particularly funny characters. The first time I read this book, I read print only and loved it, but adding the audiobook to the reread made the book POP! for me. I would easily recommend the audiobook format to readers that are looking to read this book for the first time or for those wanting to reread, like myself. This audiobook was a very good decision for me! I’ll be looking to add it to my audio library as a purchase as soon as I can.


About Asheley

Asheley is a Southern girl. She loves Carolina blue skies, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and NC craft beer. She loves all things history but prefers books over everything.

You can find her somewhere in North Carolina, daydreaming about the ocean.

Find Asheley on Litsy @intothehallofbooks!


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