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Kitchens of the Great Midwest

September 12, 2018

Well, here it is September already. I’ve been trying to get through the metaphorical whirlwind of beginning-of-the-semester events and then this past weekend we had to stand with our political banners 41338185_10215458452247553_8621687834975141888_nin the rain from the literal whirlwind—Gordon–that brought its moisture all the way up to Ohio. We are now starting to worry about Eleanor in the literal whirlwind—Florence–approaching the North Carolina coast. Our new deck is built, our cats have accepted the change, and I think I have time to take a breath and tell you about what I’ve been reading.

I picked up Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal, because I’d read about it at Big Reading Life and it seemed like a good book to read in small bits during a busy week. It was. My copy says right on the cover “a novel” but it seems to be a series of connected short stories; we never learn exactly what happens between the end of some and the beginnings of others. They’re great fun, though, partly because of the ambiguity of the in between.

I was initially skeptical about stories of Minnesota food, having heard stories about the ultra-bland from my sister-in-law, whose mother came from that area, and from Eleanor, who went to college in Iowa with one Minnesotan who said marinara sauce was “too spicy.” There’s none of that in these stories, though—in fact, the chef in the stories, Eva Thorvald, gets her start growing hot peppers.

As I am once again mourning the end of the always-too-short summer in Ohio, I loved the passage in a story about a college student whose mother “used to say that Iowans knew how to appreciate the two most precious things in life—family and warm weather,” not least because she has a typical college student’s agonistic reaction to what she’s been told all her life:
“Given that summer in Iowa was often fleeting, her mom was making one hell of a poignant juxtaposition….Still, once in a great damn while Braque did hear those words as her mother intended.”

There are recipes included in the narrative as they are mentioned, one of the first for a fairly standard version of French Onion Soup and later on, recipes for a couple of different prize-winning dessert bars.

Some of the female characters are extremely full of themselves and especially mean to other women, like Octavia, who thinks everyone else schemes and maneuvers the way she does, and Pat, an old-fashioned church lady from a small town outside of Minneapolis. Eva offers each of them a chance to work with her, and only one of them takes it (and, with it, the chance to enlarge her horizons).

There’s a beautiful one-paragraph description of Octavia early on in the story about her which tells you most of what you need to know:
“Octavia sat in Robbe’s lush backyard, in a Crate & Barrel deck chair next to Robbe’s Honeycrisp apple tree, while her bitchy, judgmental ex-roommate Maureen O’Brien smoked a cigarette and ashed it onto the lawn. Christ, Octavia though. Why did Robbe still invite Maureen to his parties? Because she worked at a cool restaurant? Because he wanted his parties to look busier? It couldn’t be because he actually liked her. It was too bad Maureen wasn’t a lesbian, with the buzz cut and the truck driver paunch and the sirloin-thick hands. She even held her cigarettes down at waist level, palm downward, like a dude, instead of arching her elbow and wrist, palm toward the sky, cigarette tip pointed downward, like a woman of a refined caste.”

Pat’s character is described as she gets in line at the registration table for a baking contest with a new acquaintance who also bakes, Celeste Mantilla:
“Celeste Man-teeya?” one of the old women asked, pronouncing Celeste’s last name in what Pat would later learn was the proper Spanish style.
“No, Mantilla, like vanilla,” Celeste said.
“Where you from originally? It’s such a pretty last name.”
“My husband’s from Florida.”
“No, originally, originally.”
Celeste sighed. “He’s half French, half Cuban.”
“I knew it,” the old woman said. “Being from Florida.”
After this exchange, Pat says:
“Celeste was still whining about the racism of the old lady at registration; Pat would never admit it outright, but she got some pleasure from seeing Celeste get a little miffed. Some small thing had to go wrong for Celeste Mantilla today in order for Pat to feel that the Lord would restore a sense of harmony and balance in the world.”
She tells Celeste that “you can’t control other people, but you can control how you react to them…because somehow it was the first thing that came to mind.”
Her quotation of the aphorism is actually helpful in the moment, though:
“Celeste stopped walking and nodded. ‘Wow,’ she said. ‘That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard in a long time.’
With that, Celeste seemed to cheer right up.”

There are a number of moments in these stories when we’re made aware of the good sense displayed by ordinary people from the middle of the country. One of these is Pat, when she’s told she should set her sights higher than local baking contests with the dessert bars she is proud of being able to make. A friend tells her that “everyone who finishes in the top three or four spots [in a Minneapolis-area contest] gets job offers from big-city professional restaurants.” Pat reacts to that information like this:
“Pat tried to think of a situation in her life where she’d ever fielded multiple offers, for anything, and nothing came to mind. Most of the time it was hard to even get one person to want her for anything.”

There’s a comic discussion of why bakers at contests must have ingredient cards, because, as one obnoxious pregnant woman puts it, “people have serious allergies and dietary preferences and things.” And there’s another comic scene at one of Eva Thorvald’s dinners, when two “foodies” who take themselves very seriously begin crying and swearing (in wonder, it seems) at the table. It reminds me of the time I went to an opera at the Kennedy Center, when my friend Susan Dunn was singing, and the woman next to me started every time Susan opened her mouth to sing, and began sobbing dramatically (but quietly) into a big handkerchief as the first notes reached us. Here’s the description of the foodies:
“The second course arrived: two glistening little rectangles of white fish on identically sized mounds of yellow and red succotash. Man-hee and Mi-sun across the table each took a bite, and Mi-sun snapped forward in her chair, clutching her head….Mi-sun’s face lifted, and there were tears on her cheeks, but she was smiling. Man-hee was rocking his head back and forth, eyes closed, while he chewed slowly.”

These stories are little jewels individually, and put together, they tell a bigger tale of ordinary people caring about ordinary things, which was exactly what I needed, this time of year. IMG_1874

Here is a photo of all three of my cats, curled up inside while it rains.

I like to read about food, especially when I’m not making much time to cook it. How about you—do you like to read about food?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2018 5:58 pm

    I loved that book and loved the way the stories did kind of link up in the end.

    We’re worried about Florence around here too – right now, they’re projecting it will go right over us – thank heavens we’re not too close to the coast so it will have lost some steam by then. And, of course, their predictions could be completely wrong.

    • September 12, 2018 8:14 pm

      One of the ambiguities that I love is that Pat is in the last story, with Eva. Obviously she chose better than Octavia did, when Eva invited her to participate in something.
      I’m hoping that the dire predictions about Florence won’t all come true. I hope it loses most of its steam by the time it gets near you.

  2. September 13, 2018 1:12 pm

    I loved the book too, and I do love reading about food, even though it usually sends me off to eat and/or buy whatever it is I read about!

    • September 15, 2018 3:59 pm

      Oh me too. Definitely. I haven’t made any bars yet, but I ordered French Onion Soup at the first restaurant that had it on the menu after I read this!

  3. September 15, 2018 3:52 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. I also love reading about food, and eating it, but I DON’T like to cook. Go figure. I do like to bake, though.

    • September 15, 2018 3:59 pm

      There’s a saying about writing: “I don’t like to write but I love having written.” I feel like that about cooking, too. Also baking.

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