44 pages 1 hour read

J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Kitchens of the Great Midwest (2015) by J. Ryan Stradal is an immersive novel delving into the rich heritage and lifestyles of Midwestern Americans who are descendants of Norwegian immigrants navigating the challenges of the Dakota prairies and open country. The narrative unfolds as they forge a living, experience love, endure financial setbacks, and persevere in an unforgiving territory. This culinary journey serves as a window into the heart of the Midwest, capturing traditions like Scandinavian lutefisk cooking, Lutheran church bakehouses, and intense hot chili pepper contests. The novel explores the evolving food culture in the Midwest, exploring the clash between traditional, home-cooked meals and the emerging trend of highbrow, experimental cuisine.

Over a span of 30 years, the novel weaves multiple narratives, alternating between male and female perspectives. Each narrative centers around a particular cuisine that plays a significant role in the life of the protagonist, Eva Thorvald—a chef with an exceptional palate who crafts culinary wonders. The food becomes a thematic framework through which to explore death, alcohol addiction, infidelity, parental abandonment, improvisation, and family conflicts. Amid these struggles, the characters strive to prosper and endure. Eva’s culinary creations become a metaphor for life’s experiences, with each dish reflecting her growth and the emotional complexities of the people she encounters.

Eva Thorvald embodies this resilient spirit, transitioning from a destitute individual with no education or resources to a world-renowned chef through hard work, a natural palate, and exceptional culinary skills. She is a symbol of the pioneer spirit thriving in the Midwest.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is Stradal’s debut novel. It swiftly reached the New York Times Best Seller list. The American Booksellers Association honored it with the Indies Choice Book of the Year Award—Adult Debut Winner in April 2016, and it also secured the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award that year. It is translated into 12 languages.

This guide uses the 2015 UK edition of Kitchen of the Great Midwest published by Quercus.

Content Warning: This book discusses substance abuse, alcohol addiction, and sexual assault.

Plot Summary

Kitchens of the Great Midwest follows the life and culinary journey of Eva Thorvald, a girl born in Minnesota with an extraordinary palate. She is destined to become a world-renowned celebrity chef. The novel is structured around interconnected short stories. Each chapter offers a unique perspective on Eva’s life while also introducing various characters who play crucial roles in her culinary and personal development. Each of the separate stories is also organized around a particular food item which is connected to Eva’s journey in some meaningful way and is often rooted in the Midwestern culinary tradition.

The narrative begins with a focus on Lars Thorvald, Eva’s father, who introduces her to the world of flavors and cuisines. Eva’s mother, Cynthia, abandons the family early on, leaving Lars to raise Eva on his own. Despite facing challenges, Lars imparts to Eva a profound love for food, guiding her through food markets and curating delightful menus filled with delicacies and treats to ignite her taste buds and nurture her budding palate. Her culinary skills begin to flourish under such influences. However, Lars dies of a heart attack when Eva is still a baby, and she is adopted by her aunt and uncle, who do not share the same love of food and cooking as her biological parents.

Eva’s dedicated chapter delves into her teenage years, which are marked by a sense of confinement and an inability to unleash her culinary creativity. She is restricted both financially and by the constraints imposed by her adoptive parents. While enduring bullying from boys at school, she finds solace in her collection of chocolate habanero peppers. She transforms them into a weapon, as she defiantly spits chili oil in the bullies’ faces.

In a quest to escape parental judgment, Eva briefly flees to live with her cousin Braque at university. Braque, an honor roll student and disciplined athlete with a rigorous workout and food regimen, assumes a maternal role for Eva. Offering guidance, she teaches Eva how to leverage her ability to tolerate intensely spicy chilies to earn money. Eva introduces Braque to sweet pepper jelly, transforming her perspective on food. This revelation prompts Braque to embark on a culinary journey to New Mexico, where she discovers the importance of taste over a strict diet.

Several years elapse, and Eva, now a high schooler, crosses paths with Will Prager. Their connection deepens as they both share the experience of losing their mothers. Eva is under the false belief that hers has passed away, and Will recently lost his mother in a car crash. Will, grappling with emotional trauma and his father’s swift rebound, becomes fervently infatuated with Eva. Despite the intensity of Will’s feelings, Eva recognizes their differences and the unhealthy dynamic, realizing that it’s not her responsibility to heal him. As Eva’s father loses his job, she faces the necessity of leaving school and relocating to support her family.

Several more years unfold, and Eva, now a young adult residing in Minneapolis, encounters Octavia Kincaid, a narcissistic and haughty culinary snob who displays cruelty and disdain toward Eva. Octavia is visibly envious of Eva’s position at BG, a renowned tapas bar where Eva works under the tutelage of Chef Mitch Diego. Octavia perceives Eva, with her hyper-sensitive palate and extensive culinary knowledge, as a threat to her romantic interest, Robbe, who ultimately starts dating Eva. One night, both Eva and Octavia bring the same dish, succotash, to a dinner party. Despite everyone noticing Octavia’s inferior creation, Eva selflessly claims it as her own to spare Octavia embarrassment. Eventually, Eva plans to move to Bali but is compelled to stay to look after her ailing father. Robbe ends their relationship, absconding with some of the funds raised for Eva’s father’s medical expenses. Eva therefore initiates what will evolve into The Dinner, an exclusive pop-up dining experience, while Octavia descends into poverty.

The narrative then shifts away from Eva, centering on Jordy, a hunter with an addiction to drugs and alcohol grappling with the impending death of his terminally ill mother. Prone to violent outbursts in his intoxicated state, Jordy channels his anger toward the impending loss. During a hunting trip with his father, he unintentionally kills a deer only to discover it has a fawn, which refuses to leave its dead mother’s side. Jordy later receives a phone call informing him of his mother’s passing, triggering intense rage and an emotional breakdown. Confused and bereaved, he is uncertain about what to do with the leftover venison. Selling it to his brother’s girlfriend, who happens to be Eva, he finds solace and comfort in her presence amid his grief. Jordy’s struggles persist as he becomes ensnared in addiction to oxycodone and continues down a path of self-destructive behavior.

Following this, the narrative focuses on Pat Prager, who was previously dating Will Prager’s father. She is a devoted Lutheran mother renowned for crafting the finest bars in the country, earning her a first-prize ribbon for five consecutive years. Pat perceives a rival in Celeste, a glamorous younger woman. She becomes consumed by anger. Together, they attend the county fair where Pat triumphs once again, prompting her to enter a larger culinary competition in Minneapolis. She attends accompanied by her son and her award-winning bars. However, Pat faces criticism from food purists who disapprove of non-vegan, non-GMO ingredients. Frustrated, she believes that their approach removes the love and joy from cooking. Eva, one of the judges at the competition, praises Pat’s bars, saying that they remind her of her childhood. On the journey home, Pat is pulled over by the police for drunk driving, and she discovers her son carrying a large amount of marijuana. In a self-sacrificial act, she conceals it in her purse.

The narrative culminates in a grand culinary event, The Dinner, where many of the characters from Eva’s past and present converge. Eva’s estranged mother, Cynthia, is one of the attendees. After abandoning Eva, Cynthia forged a life dedicated to travel, marriages, and her personal pursuits. She harbors no regrets about leaving Eva behind, but upon discovering Eva’s incredible success as a chef, she desires to meet her. She spends months on the waiting list for The Dinner and eventually attends, though she opts not to reveal her identity to Eva. Witnessing her daughter’s professional success and happiness, Cynthia refrains from disrupting the moment by reminding Eva of her past abandonment. She departs the event, carrying the knowledge that her daughter is thriving without her. While hopeful that Eva may reach out someday, Cynthia acknowledges the possibility of never seeing her again.