This may be the only novel that begins with lutefisk.
J. Ryan Stradal’s much talked about first book, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, $25), tells the story of Eva Thorvald, a chef with a once-in-a-generation palate, and her coming of age in the kitchen. But the tale begins with her father, Lars, also a chef, who as a preteen learns to transform whitefish into the unforgettable Scandinavian dish. By the close of the novel, the now famous Eva prepares a meal for diners who have waited four years to be allowed to attend her $5,000-a-plate extravaganza.
Between the covers, there’s more than a bit of the dark humor of “Fargo,” as a full roster of Minnesota names and places spill across the pages (Pronto Ristorante, New French Cafe, Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale, Goodfellow’s, Cafe Un Deux Trois, Seward Co-op, St. Paul Farmers Market and more, along with an impressive list of local bands). For one fictional restaurant, Hutmacher’s, Stradal slyly references the Rolling Stones’ visit to Excelsior in 1964. Legend has it that Jimmy Hutmaker, a fan and town character, told Mick Jagger that he didn’t get the cherry cola he’d ordered at Bacon’s Drugstore, summarizing “You can’t always get what you want.”
Stradal comes by this name-dropping honestly, as a Minnesota native, born in Waconia and raised mostly in Hastings, before heading to Northwestern University in Chicago. In 1998, he left the Midwest for Los Angeles and the entertainment world. Today when he’s not writing, he’s producing reality shows that, by hap6penstance, have a theme of danger: “Deadliest Catch,” “Deadliest Roads,” “Ice Road Truckers” and “Storage Wars.” He still returns to Minnesota three or four times a year to visit relatives.
Stradal — who refers to himself as J. Ryan — tells a wild tale in chapters that highlight a particular food: lutefisk, chocolate habanero, sweet pepper jelly, walleye and more, with a few traditional recipes (cream of mushroom soup included) thrown in for good measure.
We caught up with him by phone.
Q: What inspired you to focus your debut novel in Minnesota?
A: I never considered anything else. I think it is somewhat underrepresented in literature. I felt that I wanted to write about the kinds of people that I knew growing up. I see certain of those tropes and stereotypes represented elsewhere, sometimes very humorously or poignantly. But I wanted to write about different Minnesotans as well.
Q: Are you a fan or a reluctant diner when it comes to lutefisk?
A: I’m a reluctant diner. Lutefisk wasn’t new to me. I had it as a little kid. My great-grandparents on my mom’s side were Norwegian and Swedish. And when the Norwegian great-grandfather died, I think our family’s connection to lutefisk did as well. I came across it at a few church Advent dinners as a kid. But it wasn’t until seeking it out as an adult that I really got that sense of it that I needed to have to describe it for the book. I didn’t want to just rely on childhood memories of it.
Q: Do you have culinary training yourself?
A: I do not. I have a few close friends who do. They’ve been tremendously helpful as examples. I’ve known them since before they were chefs, so I’ve seen their maturity and how they express their passions and interests and how their talent has developed over the decades.
The only time I’ve worked at a restaurant was as a janitor of the now vanished Steamboat Inn, that I dramatized in the novel. The Steamboat Inn was a restaurant right across the border in Prescott, Wisconsin. Living in Hastings, it was a fancy restaurant, where you’d go to to celebrate your high school graduation or an anniversary.
Q: You do a lot of name-dropping of Minnesota landmarks. Did the story line or the list of state locations come first?
A: The story line came first. Then where it was relevant, where it was possible to bring up a location, I would be specific, rather than just use a fictional restaurant. It also placed that story in a particular era. As other food enthusiasts will tell you, there’s probably nothing more ephemeral than a restaurant. A listing of popular restaurants really does typify a specific era in a city’s history. I really wanted to date the story in a specific way as it relates to food and the evolution of fine dining in the Twin Cities. The New French Cafe, there was nothing quite like that when it opened up. I was just in the Twin Cities recently and it’s a wonderland of impressive restaurants. It’s not the city I remember from 1994, I’ll put it that way. It’s typical of what a lot of cities are doing in terms of kinds of menus and kinds of chefs.
Q: Other than working as a janitor in a restaurant, have you had any other culinary-related experiences in the work world?
A: One of the chefs I am friends with is a caterer, among other things. I’ve worked catering jobs with her many times, including for Howard Dean when he was running for president awhile back. So I’ve been part of catering operations and have some sense of how that runs, even though that’s not something I touch on in the book.
Q: Describe the food-related literary reading series you run.
A: My friend and I run a reading series in Los Angeles called Hot Dish. We have for six years now. And the conceit of Hot Dish is that we pair writers with food. We serve a full meal that’s oriented around a different theme each time. The audience will come, load up their plate, have a drink and listen to five or six stories. We thought it was a fun way to do a reading. Feed the audience, make them comfortable and have a sanctioned mingling time. We do it as an educational fundraiser for a nonprofit for kids of Los Angeles. It helps them out and it brings money in the door.
Q: How is the Midwestern kitchen different from one in L.A.?
A. It’s something I don’t always think about. Growing up in Minnesota in the ’70s and ’80s, it didn’t seem like we had access to the kinds of ingredients that Minnesotans have access to now, at least in quantity or affordability. We ate a lot of meat and dairy. And that’s something that people here in California, especially in my part of L.A., aren’t accustomed to or interested in. You are far more likely to find a vegan version or a nondairy variation of a meal.
Q: You reference that some of your inspiration came from your great-grandmother’s church cookbook.
A: I have both the 1984 and the 1969 Lutheran church cookbooks from my great-grandmother’s church in Hunter, North Dakota. The main reason I didn’t use the 1969 book was because the recipes say things like “cook until done.” They were written by people who weren’t going to consult this book, or at the very least, were such an old hand at them that they didn’t need the specifics.
So I relied on the 1984 one, which had a lot of the same recipes, and that told me that some of these recipes were really resilient, and obviously satisfying to people who didn’t want them to change. I think people would be more tempted today to put their own variations on these recipes for all sorts of reasons, whether trying to modernize them or to make them more healthy or put their individual stamp on them. That imperative didn’t seem to exist then. Well, maybe between competitive bakers, like “I put 3 ½ cups of chocolate chips in there and she put in 3 cups” or “She used oleo margarine and I used butter.”
I really liked how consistent and traditional these recipes were and I wanted to build my character Lars Thorvald from that tradition of cooking. He goes on to work for what at that time would have been a sophisticated restaurant. But his kitchen at home makes this kind of comfort food. Mine certainly did at the time. I grew up in a house with casseroles and ambrosia salad and Jell-O salad.
Living in California and being from Minnesota, I sometimes seek to reconcile the food I eat here and the food I eat there, and it’s very different. I like them both. In creating my character Eva, I wanted someone who attempts that kind of reconciliation herself. She grows up in the world of comfort food and then she becomes a very sophisticated and at times provocative chef. I didn’t want her to choose the latter to the exclusion of the former. I didn’t want to indict either perspective on modern cuisine. I think they can exist harmoniously, and I think they do in a lot of Midwestern cities.
Q: Are there other aspects of the Midwest kitchen or way of life that you definitely wanted to incorporate into this novel?
A: One of the things that was very important to me was dramatizing the life of a deer hunter because that to me is the most intense and intimate relationship to food as anything — to kill it, to slaughter it personally and then prepare it for your family.
My dad and my brother have been doing that for decades, and many of my uncles. I’ve never done it. I spoke with them, I’ve been to where they hunt, I’ve seen it. I’ve fired the rifles they shoot with. But I haven’t killed a deer or field-dressed it. To me that’s an important ritual in our house and in a lot of homes in Minnesota.
The hunting season, the first weekend in November, is my brother’s favorite weekend of the year. I know he’s not alone. There’s a tremendous enthusiasm for it. My dad works for the DNR so he has some idea of how many people are applying for licenses. Between the two of them, I grew up in a house that was very impassioned and informed about hunting. That’s not something I experience out here in L.A. at all unless it’s with a fellow expat Midwesterner who is looking back at his upbringing.
Q: At a recent book signing, what comments did you hear from Minnesotans?
A: I was very heartened and humbled to see a lot of enthusiasm for the setting. Some people had questions about some of the specifics in the setting, and I appreciate that attention to detail.
One person in the crowd pointed out that I had erroneously used the word casserole instead of hot dish when describing a chicken wild rice dish. My dad pointed out that the deer on the cover is not a North American whitetail deer by a long shot. It’s a European stag, as he called it pejoratively. The Minnesotans have definitely enjoyed troubleshooting the text and cover. I would never hold that against them. As proud as Minnesotans sometimes are to have their region represented, that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to withhold their scrutiny. You don’t get a free pass in Minnesota.
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