Kitchens of the the Great Midwest

Last Updated by Melissa Sievers on
J.Ryan Stradal and MJ Adams
SDPB 2017

As a young teenager, one of my first paying gigs was waitressing at Betty’s Café in Beresford, South Dakota. It was there that I first saw that people were diners of habit. Regular customers often ordered the same dish during each visit.  Betty, the café owner and cook would often have their order started before they'd even sat down. "How do you know what they're going to order?" I would ask. "They ALWAYS order that," she would reply. "But what if they change their minds?" I'd respond. "They never do," she answered.

Betty's Cafe was also where I first witnessed folks’ fascination with lutefisk. Over the summer Betty would host a special Saturday night Scandinavian dinner. The dining area was always packed. I personally don't remember being bold enough to try the gelatinous delicacy. I'd like to think that I did. I doubt my 16-year-old palate was particularly adventurous. Back at Betty’s, enough people enjoyed the polarizing lutefisk to warrant a restaurant creating a meal featuring the fish. But only once a year.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal begins with chef Lars Thorvold and his life-altering experience with lutefisk. Thorvold wished to escape the hold that the fish had on his family and a particular portion of the Minnesota population. Lars' skill made him a sought-after name each Christmas when no self-respecting Norwegian home would be without the delicacy.

Food can be divisive, as we read in Stradal's premier novel. Conflict and growth are crucial elements of a captivating story and Stradal taps the Midwestern region to find elements of each to drive his story line.

Stradal spent some time touring South Dakota this summer during a short book tour. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is the SD Humanties Council selection for the 2017 One Book program. Many book clubs across the state will gather to discuss Stradal's work.  Stradal returns to the state this September to present at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood.



Character-driven stories depend on a variety of elements.  Readers need a believable hero, as well as figures who may be less than favorable.  Stradal explains that in any industry or profession there are experts, patrons and fanatics that absolutely capture one's imagination. For every character Stradal thinks might be off in right field, there is someone in real life that can surpass even his wildest ideas.

Food absolutely is something that inspires passion. Growing it is hard work, but can be a relief for those who don’t prefer 9-to-5 desk jobs. Matt and Lindy Geraets farm near Pierre, SD and sell produce at the local farmer's market. They are real examples of the folks that chefs like Lars and his daughter Eva Thorvold would form a relationship with when planning their menus. 

Lindy Geraets reflects on Kitchens of the Great Midwest as a food producer and the special environment found at a farmers market. They are a place for families to shop, tourists to gain perspective on a location, a place for memories to be made and stories told.  



 

Most people have a memory related to food. A story of dinner with family, a night out with friends, a recipe gone wrong or the first meal that you made for a special someone.  When I was a child, I sat at my grandmother's feet as she made lunch... I hungrily anticipated meal time and the arrival of my mom home from work. I don't recall this experience firsthand, but I fondly remember it being shared with me.

 

Kitchens of the Great Midwest allows readers to consume a fictional story about characters that we can imagine knowing intimately. We get to experience a world created by Stradal and reflect upon our own memories centered around food. Then, like an hors d'oerve platter, or a dish to pass, we can share the experience with each other.