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Kitchens of the Great Midwest Serves a Babette’s Feast

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 Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest Serves a Babette’s Feast

An exclusive Authorlink interview with J. Ryan Stradal, Author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest

By Diane Slocum

November 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest
by J. Ryan Stradal
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Lars Thorvald got teased a lot growing up, smelling like the lutefisk his family prepared for the Scandinavians in Duluth. His daughter, Eva, also was tormented by her classmates, but her passion was growing chocolate habaneros, powerful enough to be a weapon. Each chapter of Stradal’s debut novel links a different character with a food that somehow also ties them to Eva and her remarkable culinary skills.

“I devised this structure in my head before I began writing. ”

AUTHORLINK: What did you come up with first for your story and how did you build it from there?
What was your initial idea for the story? How did it develop?

STRADAL: I get this question a lot! I devised this structure in my head before I began writing. I started with the idea that I’d tell the stories of the guests at a dinner party, explaining how each knew the chef, and work backwards, with each chapter telling the story of a different guest. I veered from that pretty quickly once the personality of the chef became so strong, and she, not the dinner, became the focus.

I much preferred orienting the story of the novel around a character instead of an event. It’s intentional that Eva becomes increasingly remote from the reader as she becomes more and more successful; by the time the final POV character (no spoilers) interacts with her, she’s become a bit of a legend, so to see her in person through the character’s eyes I think carries even more weight and subjectivity and allure than it does otherwise.

AUTHORLINK: Each character has his or her own separate story that links to Eva, sometimes with only a fleeting mention of her. Only the second chapter is in Eva’s head. Yet, she remains the central character that ties it all together. How did this technique come about and why is it effective?

STRADAL: Thank you for believing that it was effective – it was the first time I’d attempted something like this, and I feel I have much room for improvement. I felt that I wanted to take an unconventional route to exploring a character who goes on to achieve a level of fame and public visibility. As the POV characters become increasingly remote from Eva, I feel that the varying POVs helped expand the hearsay and conjecture that attended her notoriety, and that’s extremely interesting to me. We cannot completely control our public image, and we are different things to different people, necessarily. Eva is still a daughter, girlfriend, cousin, and confidant even as she becomes increasingly famous.

I felt it was a useful and fun way to tell a story of a person because it very naturally makes use of different, sometimes conflicting, points of view on the central character. I especially enjoyed writing a chapter from the point of view of a character who irrationally hates Eva. I wrote that chapter in about three days, and it was only very lightly edited before publication. I just love that character.

AUTHORLINK: Being from Minnesota, and knowing the reputation the state used to have for plain, white food (if it wasn’t already white, ya put your white sauce on it), I’m wondering, has the foodie culture come to the great Midwest? And what does this say about its people?

STRADAL: Yes it has, in a rather significant way. On my most recent visit this month, I stopped by a local distillery that could just as easily have existed in Los Angeles or Brooklyn. The folks I know there are just as interested in supporting local businesses and engaged with the sourcing of their ingredients as people anywhere. There’s tremendous support for conscientious, healthy, local, and interesting food and drink in Minnesota – all over the state. I think by and large, Minnesotans have great taste, and are less pretentious about it!

AUTHORLINK: How did growing up in small town Minnesota influence you as a writer and food enthusiast?

STRADAL: Well, the area I grew up in was more well-known for its old-fashioned Midwestern supper clubs—which I love, by the way—than its expressly healthy, local, and/or ethnic cuisine, but as a teenager, once I read about the variety of food available in the Cities, I had to check it out – and St. Paul was only about half an hour away (in good weather). I had most of my culinary firsts in Minnesota, from sushi to North African to Ethiopian and German food. The restaurant scene there has also, from what I’ve experienced, become far more interesting and varied

“The majority of the recipes—five of the eight—are based on recipes from a book compiled by the women of First Lutheran Church . . .”

AUTHORLINK: There is a lot about food and wine in the book (makes me hungry), where did you get your recipes and other information?

STRADAL: The majority of the recipes—five of the eight—are based on recipes from a book compiled by the women of First Lutheran Church, in my grandmother’s North Dakota hometown of Hunter. My great-grandmother and two great-aunts both have recipes in this book – this was the food I grew up with in Minnesota. I even make some of it at home in California on occasion, but lately it’s been a little warm for hot dishes.

The rest of it was inspired by my own interest and research. Researching food for a novel is a lot of fun, I have to admit—I loved almost every second of it. I learned quite a bit about heirloom tomatoes in particular, but I’m not quite sure how much I’m going to retain without sustaining my interaction with them. I don’t currently live in a place where I can grow them.

“I was fortunate to spend over a dozen years working in unscripted TV. “

AUTHORLINK: How did your previous work as a writer and editor help you develop your craft for this novel?

STRADAL: I was fortunate to spend over a dozen years working in unscripted TV.  Editing hours of raw footage for shows like “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers” TV into a concise story is an extremely useful narrative exercise. You have to develop an instinct for the necessary. I also had some wise, patient, and insightful showrunners who are all excellent storytellers – folks like Jeff Conroy, John Gray, Tom McMahon, and Steve Robillard. There are a lot of Emmys in that group. I owe a lot to them.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

STRADAL: I’m working on another novel set in the Midwest, but that’s all I can say about it right now.


About the Author:

J. Ryan Stradal writes for The Rumpus and edits the fiction section of The Nervous Breakdown. He produces a culinary reading series called Hot Dish. He has an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. His debut novel made it to the New York Times Best Seller List.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.