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Kitchens of the Great Midwest

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fiction (2015)
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.

310 pages, Hardcover

First published July 28, 2015

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About the author

J. Ryan Stradal

6 books1,656 followers
J. Ryan Stradal's NYT bestselling debut, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, won the 2016 American Booksellers Association Indie's Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year, the 2016 SCIBA award for the year's best fiction title, and the 2016 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for debut fiction. His second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, was an instant national bestseller.

Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in Los Angeles. He likes books, craft beer, wine, root beer, sports, and peas.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,550 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,979 reviews170k followers
June 26, 2018
this is a book that uses that kooky structure i so enjoy when it's done right. like John's Wife and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, we learn about the life of one character, here eva thorvald, through the eyes of the people who knew her at various stages in her life. in a series of episodic stories told by her father, her first boyfriend, a jealous rival, her cousin, etc etc - people who knew her well and people who knew her briefly, we watch her progress from an orphaned baby to a master chef, successful and bold.

like those other books, everything we know about eva comes through the filter of another, with their own perspectives and prejudices. and while i liked this book very much, i don't think the potential of the unusual structure was exploited to its fullest extent. normally in a book set up in this way, there's some psychological unpacking required of the reader, a complexity that needs to be dissected in order to fully comprehend the voiceless character. this one doesn't have much in the way of subjective intricacies; eva's character remains consistent throughout, and while some characters (well - one character) interpret(s) her behavior in an unflattering light based on their own prejudices, the eva on the page comes through the same regardless of the narrator's stance - good-hearted, a little clumsy, driven and talented. this is more of a charming read centered around a likable character than any sort of commentary about how we perceive others or construct our own narrative around them. it's light and sweet and fun, which is not usually my cuppa, but i must have been in the right mood for it this time, because i enjoyed it, to my own delighted surprise.

there were a couple of things that halted me at the four-star mark - while i loved braque's chapter overall, it was a little jarring when it dipped its toe in the magical realism pool, when the rest of the book was straight realism. and then the ending was a bit contrived and treacly, in that "coincidence jubilee" way that always makes my teeth itch.

but those were minor, karen-specific complaints. overall, this book was great - i loved the food writing, i loved the bake-off chapter, with its spotlight on how obnoxious modern-day foodies can be, and i even liked the inclusion of the recipes, even though they weren't the most staggeringly exotic dishes in the world.

but this passage made me so hungry and jealous:

The third dish, a tiny cut of venison steak, about half the size of a playing card, with tomatoes and sweet pepper jelly, was a different matter. The venison, firm enough to meet your teeth, and soft enough to yield agreeably in your mouth, revealed subtle, steely new flavors with each bite, while the tomatoes were so full of richness and warm blood, it was like eating a sleeping animal. Their pairing, the light-bodied Pinot, didn't erase these senses, it crept beneath their power, underlining them. It was about as much flavor as fifteen seconds were capable of; after one bite and one sip of wine, Cindy felt luminous and exhausted.

and this cracked me up:

"You want to feed carrot cake to a four-month-old?" Dr. Latch asked.

"Not a lot of carrot cake," Lars said. "I mean, a small portion. A baby portion. I'm just concerned about the nuts in the recipe. I mean, I guess I could make it without nuts. But my mom always made it with nuts. What do you think?"

"Eighteen months. At the earliest. Probably wait until age two to be safe."

"I could be wrong, but I remember my younger siblings eating carrot cake really young. There's a picture of my brother Jarl on the day he turned one. They gave him a little carrot cake and he smeared it in his hair."

"That's the best outcome in that situation, probably."

"Well, now he's bald."

"Looking over your dietary plan here, I'd have more immediate reservations."

"Like what?"

"Well, pork shoulder to a three-month-old baby. Not advisable."

"puréed, maybe?" Lars asked. "I could braise it first. Or maybe just roast the bones and make pork stock for a demi-glace. That wouldn't be my first choice, though."

"You work at Hutmacher's, right?" Dr. Latch said. "You do make an excellent pork shoulder. But give it at least two years."

"Two years, huh?" He didn't want to tell Dr. Latch that this conversation crushed his heart, but the doctor seemed to perceive this.

"I understand your eagerness to share your life's passion with your first child. I see different versions of this all the time. The time will come. For now, just breast milk and formula for the first three months."

"That's awful," Lars said.

so cute.

it's a light and enjoyable read, touching on the issues of nature v. nurture, family loyalty, reluctant maternity, the evolution of food culture, and the ripple effect of intersecting lives. a delicious debut. (groan)

also - on the back of my arc, in the "publicity" section, it says there will be a magazine editors farm-to-table luncheon and bookseller dinners. someone please come feed me food!!

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 118 books157k followers
September 16, 2015
Warm and charming. Interesting narrative structure. At times, Eva felt a bit manic pixie dream girl. But it is really nice to see such a lovely novel about people from the Midwest. A really fine debut.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,655 followers
January 9, 2016
This is a charming foodie novel. I had expected a sweet story, but the book ended up surprising me with its richness and depth.

What I liked best about this book was how each chapter was told from a different person's perspective. First we meet Lars, a chef who who adores his baby daughter, Eva. Lars' wife abruptly abandons them for another man, forcing him to be a single dad. The next chapter focuses on Eva as a young girl. Eva has inherited her father's gift for cooking, and we watch her grow into her talent. Future narrators are all tangentially linked to Eva, and it was fun seeing the different viewpoints. I especially liked the description of a Lutheran church bake-off, and the story of an unusual pepper-eating contest.

I am from the Midwest, and I enjoyed the references to the regional foods, including lutefisk and dessert bars. If my grandmother were alive, I would give her this book, and she would smile.

Recommended to those who like heartwarming, foodie stories.
Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 7 books54.9k followers
December 14, 2021
Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club February 2021 selection

Last year, I loved listening to Stradal's second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, so I thought I'd enjoy his debut in this audio format, too, as narrated by Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Please, I beg you, don’t read the jacket copy (or the Goodreads description above, but it's probably too late for that). I enjoyed it more by not knowing very much going into it.

Stradal’s novel-in-stories spans more than thirty years and takes us to half as many kitchens, introducing us to fancy chefs and Lutheran church ladies, portraying the food of a region and the unlikely threads that bind us, with a satisfying, full-circle ending.
Profile Image for Laurel.
442 reviews18 followers
May 27, 2015
Kitchens of the Great Midwest (or more aptly called “Eva’s Life by Way of Briefly Mentioning Food) takes Eva Thorvald rather rapidly from a newly-orphaned babe to a Scandinavian goddess with chipped fingernail polish who has a palate for either extremely hot peppers or one able to discern individual flavors from the most simply and exquisitely prepared dish. I grew up in the Midwest and lived in both Iowa and Minnesota so was excited to read this book. I knew many of the place names and was able to picture the settings, but to me it wasn’t enough to save this book. It’s not good chick lit and it’s not a good foodie book. The title is a misnomer. There is very little to tie this book together and the ending was so abrupt I couldn’t really believe I’d reached it.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
350 reviews393 followers
January 16, 2016
My, oh my, did I love this book.

I'm not sure if it resonated so strongly because:

a) I spent most of my growing-up years in the Midwest
b) I married a man from Minnesota
c) I have actually eaten lutefisk
d) My in-laws once, as a gift, gave me The Central Lutheran School of St. Paul, MN Cookbook (and it wasn't a gag gift). Said cookbook includes an entire chapter dedicated to bars.

Stradal's book isn't quite a novel, and isn't exactly a collection of short stories, but more like "snapshots" of life, with each chapter told by a different narrator. These snapshots take place at different intervals in time, often with major gaps in time in between, but in some way involve the character Eva Torvald. We follow Eva from infancy though adulthood and see her challenges and triumphs. Each of the snapshots is strong, though my favorite was the one titled "Bars."

Stradal does a fantastic job of capturing human character and foibles. He deftly (and hilariously) contrasts typical Midwestern culture with foodie hipness.

Although I was provided a galley of the book, I ended up listening to the audio version, which was superb.

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.

Thank you to NetGalley and Viking for a galley of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Erin.
3 reviews9 followers
May 23, 2015
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is hilarious without being cynical, touching without being overly sentimental, and wholly original. It is one of those rare books you can finish in a day or two, but won't stop thinking about for months, and J. Ryan Stradal's voice is one of a kind. He captures the cadence of the Midwest perfectly and lovingly, and while he allows the reader to laugh at some of the more "stereotypical" midwestern characters, it never feels like these characters are being mocked.

As the title implies, the novel (structured as a series of vignettes, each from the POV of a different person in the main character's life) centers around food and the Midwest, but it is not necessary to be a foodie or a midwesterner to relate to its vibrant characters. I spent the entire novel growing to love each character, being horribly disappointed when a chapter would end and the book would switch POVs, growing to love that new character even more, then starting the cycle all over again.

An absolute unmissable must-read.
Profile Image for Teresa.
662 reviews
August 11, 2017
Was I entertained? Yes.
Did I love the book? No.
Can he write? Definitely!
Was I frustrated with the narration? Yes.
Did I like the ending? I think so. The final chapter was far-fetched, but I enjoyed the final paragraph.

I'll try to explain myself. This is a very different type of book. Without giving away any spoilers, the story is about Eva - her infancy, childhood and young adulthood. She is born with an amazing palate and has always been absurdly obsessed with food.

There are numerous characters in this book and the frustration for me is in the narration. Each chapter is a new story - a new character, a new time period and a new event. While the chapter's story furthers the timeline of the overall arc of the book, you are initially trying to figure out how this person figures in with Eva's life and how old Eva is now & what she might be doing at that point in her life. Each event becomes very compelling and then the author will simply stop the chapter and that story without a resolution to the climax. Was Eva suspended? Did Braque have the baby? How did Jordy get beat up? Did the police officer find the drugs?

This book might not be as confusing if you can sit down and read it in its entirety. But, for me, it was hard to pick up again and try to figure out where I was. Kudos to the author for making me care about so many people and about the unanswered questions. The contemporary references to music, fashion, and the "foodie" trends are really fun. And, for originality, he gets an A+! Including the ending - which easily could have been botched. It was not anything I would have anticipated.

3.5 stars for me. Recommended for those who are looking for something very different to read.
Profile Image for Jaclyn Day.
736 reviews326 followers
August 14, 2015
I told a friend yesterday that this book is almost perfect. It’s so rare to read a novel that just makes you happy–that makes you smile at the end. I loved the story, starting from the moment Eva’s chef father asked a confused pediatrician why he couldn’t feed his three-month-old daughter pork shoulder. ("For now, just breast milk and formula for the first three months." "That’s awful," Lars said.) The book starts and ends with food, and in the meantime, each chapter focuses on a particular family member, friend, or acquaintance in Eva’s life. It’s almost short story-like in this way, with those singular characters being real and interesting enough to warrant full-length novels about their own lives. The last chapter and the final moments of the book are genius, with Eva’s story coming to an effortless (and beautifully-written) conclusion. I want to give this book to everyone I know. It’s maybe the most fun I’ve had reading this year and I’m only disappointed that the story had to end. Thanks to Penguin for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for a review.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,738 reviews14.1k followers
July 29, 2015
3.5 On the surface, and of course from the title it seems like this would be a book about food. It is but also much, much more. We first get to know Eva as a baby and from there each chapter is narrated by a different character and highlights a different food. Almost more like connected narratives, than one continuing story. We learn about Eva, and her wonderful palate as well as her cooking talent from others, connected to her either loosely or personally. Found this to be a novel concept and construct.

This is a novel about friends, family and acquaintances, about loyalty and trying new things and ideas. I loved how this all came together, hearing about bits and pieces of Eva's life. I did not feel close to this character, but I did feel I knew her, what she stood for and whom she valued. The ending I thought tied everything and everybody together. Also liked that it was left somewhat open, not a typical cliched ending. Kept, I thought with the spirit of the book.

Well written, first novel about the ties that bind, the things that matter and the importance of the people who enter our lives, however fleetingly. Looking forward to seeing what this author tackles next.
Profile Image for MomToKippy.
205 reviews83 followers
April 23, 2016
The title and cover of this book give the false impression that it will encompass a warm and maybe historical feel of the food traditions and people of the midwest. The only reason I read over 80 pages in this is because I grew up on some of the streets mentioned and the places that provided the setting for this abysmal story. The adults have few redeeming qualities, the college student was just so trashy (the attitude toward her pregnancy was pretty revolting too) and the food aspect of this is really weak to me. I get no feel of "kitchens" or the "great midwest." The only connection to food I can make here is with the compost pile or the garbage disposal.
Profile Image for Jessica J..
1,020 reviews1,961 followers
February 17, 2016
What can I say, this book was perfectly tailored to all of my literary tastes.

No pun intended, I swear.

I always have the hardest time writing reviews for books that I fall in love with. It’s so much harder to quantify, “this book gave me lots of feelings” in a way that’s more than just SQUEEEEE!!!, and I always feel a lot of pressure to moderate myself because what if people read the book because I loved it here on Goodreads and then they hate it—and thus, they hate me?

(Yes, that’s how my brain works sometimes. Social anxiety is exhausting.)

But, nevertheless, I fell head over heels in love with this book. I read it in a day and a half. I could have done it even faster if I didn’t have to sleep.

It’s essentially the story of Eva as she grows from an infant to a world-renowned young chef. Each chapter relates a scene from a different period of her life, related to the reader through the narrative of another person in her life and framed around essential dishes that informed her tastes and her memories. We start with her father, who grew up cooking lutefisk in Minnesota and passed on his obsessive foodieness to his infant daughter. We then meet cousins, would-be boyfriends, and social arch-rivals who shine a light onto the arc of Eva’s growth. These characters weave in and out of Eva’s life over the years in unique and surprising ways before it all ties together at the end.

If I were to dock this book any points, it’s that a couple of the chapters stray a little too far away from Eva in their focus and so Eva never became quite as sharp a character as I really wanted her to be. Maybe this bothered me because the book didn’t quite head in the direction I expected it to (), but it didn’t bother me enough to actually dock points.

I liked the way that the plot unravels, illuminating exactly why a specific dish or ingredient planted itself in Eva’s memory, but what I really loved was the way Stradal writes. It’s so very Midwestern, breezy and light but filled with subtle emotional heft that isn’t totally evident until I was all done and looking back on the story as a whole. After a series of completely dreary books, the relatively upbeat tone of this book was completely refreshing—a testament to “right book at the right time,” I suppose. The characters were (almost) all incredibly likable, even the ones who were doing unlikable things. Stradal is nothing if not full of empathy for these characters.

It’s basically a warm fuzzy in book form, but it’s not all fluff and sugar; it does run just a little deeper than that. Even if it’s not capital-L Lit-rah-chure, there’s lots of ideas about family and identity and community and taking risks and the incestuous wonder that is Small-Town America. I really connected pretty hard with a lot of the notes that Stradal was striking, and the book frequently made me laugh out loud. It was a wonderful way to spend two days, and I do so very much recommend it.

Profile Image for N. Moss.
Author 6 books77 followers
May 20, 2015
Oh my god I love this book. It careens in a way that has kept me in a tense place where I don't want to stop reading, but I don't want to rush the book either. The voice of each chapter is unique and hilarious and touching, and I am in love with Eva, the protagonist who grows and eats and cooks with incredibly hot peppers, and turns into this weird, goth, cool chef chick and more. I don't want to give anything away, but this is one of those books that I can't believe I get to be "in on" before it hits the big time. It's going to be a huge hit, and J. Ryan Stradal is going to be a huge star, and it's going to be a movie some day (mark my words).
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,341 reviews701 followers
August 21, 2019
3.5 stars: KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal is an engaging story of Eva Thorvald, a major culinary force. Eva’s story begins sadly, as her mother abandons her as an infant, and soon after that, her father dies of cardiac arrest. Her father, Lars, was a foodie and a chef. Before his death, he had big plans to feed her gourmet food mashed up in a food processor. He wanted to introduce culinary delights at a young age. Ultimately, her Uncle and Aunt raise her in basic poverty.

Her early years are first half of the novel. The reader gets to know Eva and the influential events of her life. Even in high school, she could identify ingredients in a meal. The next part left me curious. Stradal jumps into other “kitchens” or foodies. These all take place in the Twin City (Minneapolis/St. Paul) area. Stradal’s characterization of the people in the novel is spot on. He has an uncanny ability to write his women characters realistically, especially the Lutheran church ladies.

There’s quiet humor throughout the novel. The “laugh out loud” parts are when he pokes fun at foodies. There’s a baking competition and the foodies want to know where all the ingredients are “sourced”. When asked if her ingredients were locally sourced, one sweet Lutheran woman replies “yes, 2 miles away at a local grocery store”. The foodies are aghast. No local churned butter? No hand crafted flour? You don’t hand pick your walnut grower? It’s hilarious.

This is a delightful novel that is a fast read. I enjoyed every minute with the various characters in the novel. I recommend it for one of those feel-good, happy reads.
Profile Image for Jennifer Lane.
Author 18 books1,415 followers
November 17, 2015
Two Cups of Strange Characters, A Tablespoon of Food Porn, And a Dash of Midwest

I’m not sure how to rate this book. The writing is top notch with unique characters. But parts of the story disappointed or disgusted me, and the ending felt anticlimactic.

Eva Thorvald is just a baby when her sommelier mother abandons her. Her foodie father, who serves her gourmet delicacies, dies next. Despite this tumultuous childhood, Eva grows up to be a world-renown chef.

This book is Eva’s story, told through multiple points of view by the characters around her. It took me a while to figure out that she is the central character due to many different threads woven into the story.

When Eva is a teenager, she dates Will Prager. It’s a realistic portrayal of the awkward fail that is adolescent romance. Will’s buddies are great:

Vik got up from his drum stool. “Ken, weren’t you listening? He got hugged at the end of a second date! Hugged! I wouldn’t wish that on anybody! Seriously, you’d rather get slapped in the face than hugged!”

Musician Will writes a song for Eva (that she never gets to hear). Most of the music mentioned in the book is too alternative for me to recognize, but I do appreciate the shout-out to “The Distance” by Cake.

My least favorite character is Eva’s cousin, Braque, who plays varsity softball at Northwestern University. The way Braque thinks and speaks makes me cringe. It’s like the author removes all her femininity to portray a female athlete. I just found her gross. And I didn’t really understand her hallucinations about sweet pepper jelly.

My favorite part of the story is the suspenseful baking contest. Pat is a churchwoman with famous peanut butter bars, competing against gluten-free, organic, non-GMO, and local-sourced food. She’s so down to earth and real. Pat’s kind gesture to another parishioner made me misty-eyed. This conversation between Pat’s friends is SO Midwest:

”I like those capri pants, Barb,” Celeste said.

“Oh, thanks. Got ‘em at Kohl’s. Originally fifty dollars, cut down to twenty-nine, but I got ‘em for nineteen with a coupon.”

Everyone nodded in admiration at the good value.

“The blouse was even a better deal,” Barb continued. “It’s Guess brand, originally seventy-nine dollars, but I got it at TJ Maxx for eighteen.”

I also connected with the parallel conversation between Pat and her husband; both talking but neither listening to each other.

The food descriptions are mouth-watering, culminating in one of Eva’s celebrated pop-up dinners with a succulent menu including foods mentioned throughout the story. Finally, I thought. This is the time when the separate threads of a story weave together at the end for an exciting climax. But the threads seemed to unravel in the realistic yet unsatisfying ending. Pat's and Will’s story in particular felt underwritten. While I appreciate the effort at realism, I felt disappointed.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,339 followers
August 11, 2015
3 1/2 stars. Kitchens of the Great Midwest made me hungry. It's not a cookbook, but interspersed amongst these connected stories are a few recipes and descriptions of really tasty sounding dishes. The link between all of the stories is Eva, who has a rough start in life when her mother abandons her as a baby and her father dies soon after from a heart attack. She is then raised as their own by her father's brother and his wife. The book consists of a series of interlinked stories told from the perspective of people somehow connected to Eva, starting in her childhood and running through to her adulthood. From an early age, Eva has an unusually developed palate and love of food and cooking. Some of the stories are very closely connected to Eva and in others she is only referred to tangentially. But the stories are connected thematically -- they deal to a large extent with ordinary people coping with relationships, financial troubles and illness, and the comfort provided by love, friendship and nourishment. Oddly, we never get to know Eva particularly well, but within a world that is at times harsh or indifferent, she is portrayed as a resilient graceful presence -- strong, generous, and self-assured despite her own personal circumstances. This is a relatively quick read. I liked some stories more than others, but I liked the concept and generally enjoyed the execution. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,493 reviews9 followers
February 6, 2017
Just as your first steaming cup of coffee of the morning, sweet butter melting on freshly baked bread, a brilliant red heirloom tomato, a slice of carrot cake, and wine, great wine, are meant to be savored, so are these stories of Eva Thorvald. Born to a woman who chose a sommelier over her and a man who cherished her more than life itself, she grew up in our great Midwest learning about fresh food and family through osmosis.

The descriptions made me hungry for farm stand produce and Peanut Butter Bars from the Lutheran church's bake sale. I'm craving bi-color corn and a huge juicy vine-ripened tomato picked fresh this morning, still warm from the bright sunshine so missing from this January day here near Chicago.

Food truly is a language we can all speak, even when there are no words for what's in our hearts.

It's a one of a kind 5 ★ story and a debut to boot. You did an excellent job, J. Ryan Stradal. Your mother taught you well. Thanks for the memories, for this was a great experience I won't soon forget.

Profile Image for Evan.
437 reviews50 followers
August 17, 2015
For me this book is just one of those that starts off great and just slowly keeps sliding downhill. I also didn't get why it even included recipes, it's like the author thought that would be cool but it doesn't add anything to the story at all. I don't want to say too much about the ending so I don't spoil anything but let's just say I thought it was bad. Kitchens of the Great Midwest has promise but could have used a strong editor to really push Stradal's story into something amazing.
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
797 reviews586 followers
November 16, 2018
I liked this book. I didn't love it.

I'm doing the Book Pool with the BLK reading group & other than my own selections, this is the book that caught my eye. And normally I love to read about other cultures.

Not this time.

I just felt really alienated from all the characters in this book, other than minor character Pat Prager & her family. These characters were funny & Stradal's writing really came alive writing their story. But I didn't care about anyone else, including Eva herself. Stradal may have meant to make Eva look enigmatic, but he did'nt manage that.She just looked empty. I didn't like all the loose ends. They weren't important to the writer, so I guess he felt they shouldn't be important to us. But the whole effect was very disjointed. I'm glad I read the book quickly, as otherwise it would have been to hard to follow. & I'm never big on multiple POV - especially since we had such a detailed look in main character Eva's head at the start & never came back inside.

I'm just not the right reader for this writing style.
Profile Image for Susan Phillips.
Author 91 books14.6k followers
June 20, 2016
Quirky and courageous with an absolutely fascinating structure. A few elements of magical realism. This would be a terrific book club book. It will especially resonate with Midwesterners. (Not a romance.)
Profile Image for Suzy.
777 reviews251 followers
January 26, 2016
What a wonderful way to start my new year of reading! A touching book about "found family" that I connected to in so many ways! It is set where I live in and around The Twin Cities in Minnesota, it's about food and foodie culture and about people from all walks of life and how they connect in surprising and unexpected ways.

This is the story of Eva Thorvald, born to a budding chef father and a sommelier mother. Lars Thorvald has great aspirations for his daughter, even arguing with the pediatrician about feeding her fully prepared dishes at 2 months, but her life does not play out according to expectations. As the book blurb says Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character. I had not actually noticed the "single dish" part, but the "character" part allowed Stradal to tell of Eva's story from her birth to early adulthood and how each character's life featured in the chapters intersected with Eva's life and contributed to her development. I liked both the structure of the book and Stradal's writing. Each person comes to life fully formed and believable. His description of the food and the preparation of the dishes made my mouth water and led me to my own kitchen to cook!

I love stories about found family and found community. Kitchens of the Great Midwest stands with others favorites of this ilk. It reminded me of one of my favorite reads of 2014 The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in how I felt reading it. Fikry revolved around books, Kitchens revolves around food, but both portray a heartwarming story of how people end up in the right place with the right people even when things don't go according to plan.

I had mixed feelings about the audio production. The narration alternated between Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg. I didn't see the rationale behind the two narrators, so the switch in narrators was distracting. While they were both good, Stuhlbarg's Minnesota accent was too over the top!
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
617 reviews338 followers
April 25, 2016
4.5 Riedel wine glasses
I loved this touching, quirky, delightful, original story and so appreciated it after some heavy reads. Each chapter is an anecdote from a different time period in Eva’s life journey starting from just before her birth. Each is told from the perspective of a different person in her radar of peeps at that juncture and all will come full circle in the end. Because her father is a foodie and wants to be a chef and her mother has a love affair with wine and wants to be a sommelier (my kinda parents), she is genetically predisposed to love the culinary arts, eventually channeling her inner badass Julia Child. Throughout the pages we experience her skill with ingredients as well as my personal favorite, wine. What’s not to love? Well, the lutefisk. Even the best wine in the world and Eva’s skill cannot help with that.

Favorite quote: when Eva’s father describes her mother. “Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.”

Favorite wineries mentioned: Cakebread Cellers (love their Sauvignon Blanc (thank you Jamise for the heads-up on that one), and Saxum’s TH Estate Wines. My BFF Bonnie said a bottle she drank was the best wine she has ever had (she did not share it with me so maybe I should rethink the BFF status).

Favorite dish: Caesar salad. "Eva rubbed the sides of the wooden bowl with bisected cloves of Porcelain garlic and prepared the dressing, a mixture of Koroneiki olive oil, warm coddled range-free brown egg yolks, Worcestershire sauce, freshly ground Madagascar black peppercorns, one freshly diced Porcelain clove, and a bit of Meyer lemon juice. She placed single whole romaine leaves on everyone’s plates and drizzled the dressing over them, topping each with four homemade sourdough bread croutons." Oh my tastebuds. We also learn that Caesar Cardini’s original salad did not have cheese and anchovies (my kinda guy).

Highly recommend this to just about anyone for sheer enjoyment in reading.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,608 reviews2,580 followers
September 23, 2019
(Nearly 4.5) One of my favorite debuts of 2015. From my Bookmarks review: Stradal has revealed that his grandmother’s Lutheran church cookbook was the inspiration for this culinary-themed novel that takes place over the course of 30 years. His unique structure takes what are essentially short stories from different perspectives and time periods and links them loosely through Eva Thorvald, an intriguing character who remains hard to pin down. Eva’s pop-up supper club gains fame thanks to her innovative adaptations of traditional Midwestern foods like venison or Scandinavian lutefisk; it charges $5,000 a head. Yet this is “not only Eva’s story but also a gastronomic portrait of a region” (New York Times Book Review).

For me the best chapter was “Bars,” but it’s not the only one in which Stradal cleverly denies the fairytale ending readers might be expecting. I, at least, thought traditional home cook Pat Prager should trounce all those hipsters and their vegan/gluten-free/celiac/raw baked goods at the bake-off and go on to culinary stardom. What actually happens is rather different, though the time lapse between chapters means you get to fill in some of the intervening plot for yourself. I loved almost all of Stradal’s ordinary, flawed characters. If you want a peek at how average Americans live (apart from the $5,000 meals), you’ll find it here.

(Quick marketing question that I ask out of curiosity: how do you think the decision was made to pass this off as a novel, but Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno as “Stories”? Although Eva appears in some way in each of the chapters here, it can sometimes be like a game of Where’s Waldo/Wally – how will she turn up now? By contrast, Marra’s stories are more closely linked. Perhaps the difference is simply that his chapters are not chronological?)
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
July 5, 2015
I received a copy of this from the publisher through the Penguin First Reads program in exchange for an honest review.

The story of Eva Thorvald, a chef with a once-in-a-lifetime palate, is told through other people in her life. It starts with her mother, her father, then moves toward people who aren't as directly connected to her. This tactic had varying amounts of success in my mind. In the beginning I felt I had a clear sense of Eva, particularly in her love for spicy pepper jelly as an unborn child and her revenge with peppers she grew in her closet as a child. But as the characters get farther removed from her, we stop knowing what she thinks and feels, and instead have to deal with various people including a somewhat obnoxious Minnesotan church lady.

But then again, the characters are also great. If I take away my feeling that the novel is about Eva and we should be closer to her, I can say the capture of the midwest is fantastic. I don't know if in the final copy the publisher provides recipes but that would be a good idea (who wouldn't want to try those damn peanut butter bars?)

In my reading around the USA challenge that I've been halfheartedly working on for a few years, I had never found a book set in Minnesota. Here it is!
Profile Image for Kathleen.
891 reviews
June 14, 2017
We listened to the audiobook of KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST. The readers were excellent giving different voices for each character. Sections were humorous - my husband, who rarely laughs aloud, chuckled several times! However, he did not appreciate the vulgar language which was used throughout much of the book. Nor did I. About 40% into the book I was considering not finishing it. I read some reviews and based upon some 5 and 4 stars reconsidered. I wanted to know how Eva's life would turn out. Also, I wanted to know if her biological mother would ever return.
This novel reads like several short stories with a common thread connecting them. Several recipes that related to the story were included. The paring of wines with foods brought to mind some of my Goodreads friends (You know who you are!). I raise this from 2.5 to 3 stars because I heard my husband chuckle and I liked the ending.

**Being forced to listen to all the f***** words and such, possibly resulted in my lower rating than the rating of many friends.
Profile Image for Bkwmlee.
385 reviews254 followers
March 1, 2021
3.5 stars

This book was nothing like what I expected (though not necessarily in a bad way). Based on the title and premise as described on the jacket cover, I thought the story would be about the main character Eva Thorvald’s journey from obscurity to becoming a world renown chef. While that journey did indeed happen, the way her story was told completely took me by surprise. Going into this one, I was expecting a linear story, perhaps told from Eva’s perspective, that chronicled her rise from the ranks, from a difficult childhood to enormous success as a chef — yet a few chapters in, I realized this was definitely not going to be an ordinary story. This is actually the first time I’ve read a story with such a unique structure — where, instead of accompanying the main character — in this case, Eva — as she grew, we are provided insight (more like “glimpses” actually) into her life mostly through the experiences of others. Some of those characters had a direct connection to Eva, but most of them didn’t. Given the limited perspective, we as the reader, were left to infer and interpret, to fill in the gaps ourselves with what we think happened, and in the end, for me at least, it left me with more questions than answers.

While I did enjoy this one overall and applaud the author for trying something different and unique, I’m the type of reader who prefers being able to connect with the characters in a story and it was too difficult to do so in this case. This actually felt more like a short story collection where some of the same characters would pop up in certain scenes when needed. Eva was supposedly the main character, and yes, she did “show up” in some capacity in each chapter, yet after reading the entire book, I felt like I didn’t know much about her. Same with the other characters — much of their stories felt incomplete, as there would be moments where they’d be in the middle of a situation and the chapter suddenly ends without any type of resolution, but then that same character would show up again in a subsequent chapter, with the timeline being much later, leaving us to essentially “guess” at what happened between that time. For me, this made for a somewhat frustrating read at certain points.

With all that said, I would still recommend this one, though I would also caution going into it with a blank slate — in other words, no preconceived expectations. And I would definitely caution against reading the summary on the book jacket (or on Goodreads) — actually, others had given me the same warning when they first recommended the book to me, but it took me so long to get around to reading this one that I completely forgot and only remembered after I had finished. If you decide to read this one, hopefully you don’t make the same mistake.
Profile Image for Barbara A..
168 reviews20 followers
June 7, 2015
Astonishing. It is rare to find a book that meets and exceeds its pre-pub. hype.
The stories are at once restrained, involving, wry, funny, and spot-on reads of both Midwest life and foodie culture. Eva is creating, making, sharing far more that great food here. She is creating and sustaining an extended family. I am hungry for more by Stradal. And I think I am going to reread this immediately. Brilliant, affecting, memorable.
Read alikes? Louise Erdrich's short stories meet Ruth Reichel's memoir.
Film to view after? Babbette's Feast.
Wine pairings? I await Cynthia Hargreaves' suggestions.
Profile Image for Melania 🍒.
540 reviews86 followers
November 5, 2019
Kitchens of the Great Midwest will always have a special place in my heart. It’s funny because I bought this book knowing almost nothing about it, I used a random number generator to pick something from my wishlist and this was it. It was also in a time that I just got into reading again, and this was perfect for me at that point.
And now, upon re-reading it, I realize that even if I’m a different reader and I have other expectations from my books, this story will alway stay with me.
Profile Image for Kari Ann Sweeney.
940 reviews279 followers
August 30, 2021
I read this book on audio and it was sublime! The voice talent was spot on. Was the Minnesotan accent over the top? Sure- but sometimes it's fun to lean into accent stereotypes.

I grew up in Minnesota and have spent my adult life in Wisconsin, so this book completely resonated with me. It was nostalgia at its best.

I found it funny, charming and fresh. The structure was new to me. The book consists of eight chapters, each of which is a short snapshot of from a different character that is somehow connected to the rest of the cast. Each chapter is titled after a Midwestern food- Lutefisk, Walleye, Venison and Bars.

Bars (dessert- not the drinking establishment) was hands down my favorite chapter. There was an exchange about foodie snobs that had me laughing out loud.

You don't have to be from the Midwest to appreciate the story, the writing or the food.

𝘈𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰 03.18
𝘗𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘵 01.21 (Reskimmed for MMD Book Club. Now I'm going to re-watch our discussion with the author.)
𝘈𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰 08.21

𝐋𝐈𝐒𝐓𝐄𝐍𝐄𝐃: Doing ALL the back-to-school prep- organizing clothes to keep/donate, laundry, eye exams, dental appts. Walking around the Farmers Market- which had a very different vibe while listening to this story.
Profile Image for MaryBeth's Bookshelf.
379 reviews86 followers
May 18, 2020
While I will avoid the kitchen at all costs, I do love a good book about food and family. I absolutely loved J. Ryan Stradal's debut novel!

This book is so different from anything I've read recently. The book is about Eva Thorvald, a young girl who finds a love of food from a young age and how that love shapes her journey to adulthood. But, what I loved about the book is each chapter focuses on a different person who comes into Eva's life and leaves her with something. It's almost like Eva is a background character, yet we learn about her through the eyes of the secondary characters.

This was such an easy story to fall in love with. The writing has such a richness to it. I loved all the descriptions of food and the sweet cast of characters that help Eva on her journey. The ending left me with questions, but I loved it!
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