A native of Minnesota who now lives in Los Angeles, J. Ryan Stradal returns to the heartland in his debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest. The book follows the early life and rise of Eva Thorvald, a precocious young woman with a “once in a generation palate” who manages to leave her own unique mark on America’s culinary landscape. Along the way the story veers in many unexpected directions and chapters are dedicated to characters who, in a more traditional telling of Eva’s story, would have been merely peripheral. The chapter “Venison” centers on Jordy Snelling, a deer hunter with a crush on his mother’s hospice nurse. The very next chapter “Bars” concerns itself with Pat Prager, a middle-aged church going woman whose claim to fame is the number of blue ribbons she’s won in local baking contests. Eva is rarely the central figure in any given chapter, and she never plays the same role twice. In one chapter she is the object of young love, in another she is the root of all trouble, in a third she is bewildering in her kindness. In this way Stradal creates a mosaic of both the novel’s hero and of foodie culture in America.
Stradal’s writing has previously appeared in Hobart, The Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and right here on The Rumpus. He also works as an acquisitions editor for Unnamed Press. We caught up with J. Ryan to talk about the book as well as his thoughts on foodie culture more generally.
The Rumpus: When I read that this book was about the rise of foodie culture in America, I thought I knew exactly the type of people who would populate its pages. But the book’s characters are not at all the type of people I think of when I think of foodies. Were you conscientiously bucking the stereotype?
J. Ryan Stradal: I wanted to write about the kinds of Midwesterners I knew growing up, ones who I didn’t often see reflected in the books and media I’ve experienced. It was fun to write about these kinds of folks in terms of their individual relationships with food. Jordy, for instance, the deer hunter, he has a more intense and committed relationship to food than the majority of self-described “foodies” every time he aims his rifle at a deer. It wasn’t so much a conscious bucking of a stereotype as it was an assertion of under-represented personalities and characters.
Rumpus: The recipes in this book all come from a cookbook put together by your grandmother and other women from the First Lutheran Church of Hunter, North Dakota in 1984. Was coming across this cookbook the origin of Kitchens of the Great Midwest?
Stradal: Not exactly. But early on, when the Midwestern setting was established, I did want to touch on some traditional Midwestern food, and when Pat Prager was developed as a character, it seemed organic for her and the other women of their church to show off their recipes. My grandmother’s cookbook proved a staunchly traditional source for recipes like peanut butter bars and chicken and wild rice hot dish.
Rumpus: Let me ask you about establishing the Midwestern setting. You’re a child of the Midwest and now live on the West Coast. How does being outside of Minnesota change your perspective of it? Did you need the distance to write this book?
Stradal: That could be. At the very least, it’s literally my default setting. I’m going on seventeen years in Los Angeles and I’m not remotely tempted to write about this city. They say that your first book is about your childhood, whether you intend it to be or not, and my childhood happened to take place in southern Minnesota. Writing about the Midwest was something I was, and am, deeply motivated to do. Although I only make it back a few times a year, I feel fairly comfortable describing that world based on my memories and recent observations.
Rumpus: Very early on in this novel, a character is standing on the steps outside his apartment complex and the story’s trajectory takes an unexpected turn. It becomes clear that Kitchens of the Great Midwest isn’t going to arc the same way most novels do. Can you say a little bit about how this structure came into being?
Stradal: That opening chapter was one of the last ones I wrote. I waited until I knew what I was setting up. With this one, I started in the middle and worked out to both ends. Mostly I just wrote whatever the hell I wanted to every day I woke up. I didn’t follow an outline besides the one in my head, and because I always wrote what I wanted to, regardless of its place in the timeline, there was never a day when writing felt like “work.” Quite frankly, I deeply love these characters and I wanted them to tell the story to me, and this affected the shape of everything. Once the book became about Eva, everyone else fell into line, and they either had to get out of the novel to help her grow, or find their way in to help her grow. Whoever they were, they had to serve the greater good.
Rumpus: You mentioned Pat Prager, who is one of a number of supporting characters who for a while become the focus of the book. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the central character, Eva Thorvald, is more central at some points than others. The novel is her story, but it’s a lot of other people’s stories, too. How did the novel come to take this shape? Did you harbor any concern this might turn off a reader?
Stradal: The novel took this shape slowly. Early on, I was wildly into the idea of writing the story of a young chef’s education and rise that mirrored America’s dilation of consciousness and intent related to food. It seemed to me as Eva becomes more famous, she drifts out of view of the people she grew up around. Her growing distance from the central action of the narrative is intended to reflect her increasing isolation. I know it asks more of a reader than a conventional narrative, but I try to establish the trust that these characters, Eva in particular, will reappear. Hopefully readers will have patience with it.
Rumpus: Can I get you to expand on what you mean by “dilation of consciousness and intent related to food”?
Stradal: My parents didn’t always seem to love the emphasis on convenience that encroached the grocery stores of their adulthood, which is understandable considering what had been compromised in order to make food cheaper and quicker to prepare. They saw friends, young friends, die of cancer and heart disease. They took in the rapidly expanding amount of information on the Internet about health and considered the diets that filled TV talk shows and bookstore shelves. Sure, maybe my parents quit buying new music after their late 30s, but believe me, they never quit seeking new information about their health and mortality and diet’s heavy role in both. Over the last two decades, the dietary emphasis on convenience has been examined and disassembled, in search of a purity and quality that was mitigated by food conglomerates and their pesticides, genetic modifications, additives, preservatives, animal cruelty, and labor practices. The media tends to give “hipsters” a lot of credit for their enthusiasm for farmer’s markets and seasonal menus, but this is not an evolution that’s specific to one generation or age group. We’ve enabled a dietary world that can allow us a greater spectrum of healthier choices than ever before. I’m absolutely intrigued by this.
When I sat down to write the book I’d titled Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I often thought of the Midwest I never directly knew, the one more limited in choice but alive with practical invention. I thought of the Midwest of my father’s and grandmother’s farms. What makes the Midwest “great” to me is less the best-case scenarios and more the resourcefulness, the heartiness, and the skill of the family cooks who did their best, on limited budgets, with what was fresh and available. Arriving at thoughtful eating seems to be an increasingly important goal for many, and I’m glad for this. As with the case with many avenues to positive change, it’s often a question of access. It wasn’t that long ago that access to truly healthy meals seemed either prohibitively expensive or simply downright difficult, and sadly, that’s still the case in some areas.
Rumpus: Food is perhaps the number one way in which people come together, but it is also a way people separate each other into groups. How did this dichotomy factor in to the writing of Kitchens of the Great Midwest?
Stradal: Most flagrantly at the Petite Noisette contest, where Pat Prager engages with concepts she was unaware were widely accepted, but I feel like I inflected every chapter with varying perspectives on food and its uses and importance. I look upon it more as a spectrum than a dichotomy, though there are moments where it seems like there’s a stark line in the sand. Personally, I grew up in Pat Prager’s world, and I like my bars with real butter, but I’m extremely sympathetic to the couple she’s arguing with. I know where they’re coming from.
Rumpus: What impressed me most about this book is the way you were able to take a character’s somewhat trivial concern and have it lead them somewhere much harsher. Chapters that begin with characters fretting over county bake-offs and what to bring to monthly potlucks end with life-altering, illegal situations. Your ability to do this slowly, organically surprised me again and again. What was your strategy here? Were these twists ever surprises to you?
Stradal: Great question. I write my way into stories, so yes, I was surprised again and again by the choices my characters made and where these choices led them. It really devastated me to write some of these scenes. I felt like telling them, “don’t do that!” many times, but they usually did it anyway.
Sometimes I start with setting, and then I think of an ending or conclusion, and then I start really far away from that ending, and let a character loose into a dark world with that ending as just the faintest flicker on the horizon. Sometimes the ending changes before they get there; it depends on how strong-willed the characters end up being.
Rumpus: Can you give us an example of a scene in which you were particularly conflicted about leading a character somewhere you yourself would not want to go?
Stradal: Wow. That’s tough. I don’t think of my own tastes or predilections at all when I judge where a character is likely to go. I’d say at some point all of them make choices that I’d at least think harder about. I personally like to create characters who are riskier than I am; they’re a hell of a lot more interesting for it, certainly. I’m an annoyingly circumspect guy at times, and I’d hate to see that characteristic come out too often in my characters; it makes me cringe when it does. A particular decision that Octavia makes near the end of her chapter just kills me. Thinking of it has me shaking my head right now.
Rumpus: There are moments in this book that are quietly heartbreaking. I’m thinking right now of Jordy, the deer hunter. He comes to a point at which he can either fuck up his life or he can open himself up to other people. The psychology in this scene is nuanced and finely observed. The whole story leading up to it is tense with uncertainty. Jordy might move toward darkness or toward light. Yet when he ends up where he does it seems inevitable. The whole idea of him having a choice suddenly evaporates and it’s as if his having a decision to make was an illusion all along. I can only imagine the number of drafts you must have gone through to arrive at this complexity, this sense of predestination.
Stradal: I think I spent the most time on that chapter of all of them. You definitely picked up on this. It took a lot of work, both in the first two drafts, and later working with an editor, to really nail the balance in that chapter. I love Jordy to death, and as his writer, I want what’s best for him, but at this stage of his life he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. We’ve all seen people we love knowingly charge into realms that we knew would hurt them, and Jordy’s grief is an unwieldy thing for him. The tools he uses to ameliorate it are violent and unforgiving in their effectiveness.
Rumpus: In addition to being a novelist, you also work for Unnamed Press as an acquisitions editor, a job that I assume has you reading a lot of manuscripts. I’d be curious to know, in your mind, what is it that separates a well-written, pretty good draft of a novel from one that is truly remarkable?
Stradal: Much of the best work has a great concept and vivid, full, complex characters and a beautiful, assured voice and a propulsive and surprising plot. I do think that some of what I read from emerging writers has only one or two of these, but I’m not sure, strictly speaking, if all are equally weighed in my mind; it depends on the aims of the manuscript. When I’m judging a manuscript that, in my estimation, has just one or two of these features, I also have to consider what can be done about the less fully-developed characteristics. For some editors, it comes down to how much time we have to truly help evolve a “good” manuscript into something more fully realized.
I often ask, what is this book trying to be, and is this the best possible version of that? If not, what will guide it to be so within its specific needs? I sometimes think of really incredible iconoclastic books like Pale Fire and how some editors would’ve have absolutely ruined it if that book had come from a first-time novelist. I fear being that kind of editor. But we’re experienced enough as readers that I believe we can often feel when something’s working, and we try to, and we care to, and we’re lucky to live in a world where there are so many versions of what constitutes great work. There is no magic bullet or formula. An editor can examine each sentence for whether it moves the story forward, informs, evokes, entertains, or some combination thereof. A novel could be technically perfect in this regard and intelligent readers are still going to dislike it. That’s the beauty of it.