I’m joining The Novel Bakers with a review of *Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel
by J. Ryan Stradal
J. Ryan Stradal delves in to the American heartland, sweeping the vast landscape of Lutheran church bake-offs, chili-pepper–eating contests, and the opening of deer season to capture the zeitgeist of the Midwest and the rise of foodie culture:
Midwestern Chef Lars Thorvald has three loves in his life—his kitchen; his wife, Cynthia; and his newborn daughter, Eva. When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder.
Each chapter tells the story of how a single dish or ingredient came into Eva’s life—culminating in an opulent, emotional feast that’s a testament to Eva’s spirit and resilience.
Eva is a fish out of water, blessed with a once-in-a-generation palate and living in a fast food household. At age 11, she’s growing hydroponic chile plants and prefers vegan blueberry sorbet for her birthday over cake. I loved all the foodie culture and differing food points of view in this book, from the Jell-O Salad/pasta-in-the-box camp, to the opposing artisinal side, sourcing local ingredients and consumed with labels of vegan, gluten-free, and non-GMO.
The tomato debates. . .F1 hybrids, early growth heirlooms, indeterminate vines, and the reign of San Marzano.
“With American cornfields at close to 90 percent GMO corn, and all the numerous crosses and hybridizations and so-called improvements made to corn even before genetic intervention, Anna Hlavek at the farmers’ market was growing something almost unheard of: an open-pollinated corn variety that hadn’t changed a bit in more than one hundred years.”
“…Anna had inherited her seed stock from her grandfather, who’d bought it from a catalog when Burpee first introduced Golden Bantam 8 Row back in 1902.”
I made a succotash recipe with inspiration from two different versions served at a dinner party in the novel. Succotash recipes are as varied as tastes~ if you look up 10 succotash recipes and you’ll find 10 different versions, the only common ingredient being corn!
Succotash can be prepared as a Southern stir-fry or stew, made with butter and cream, or served room temperature or cold as salad. Beans vary from the traditional lima, to edamame, fava, or green beans, as in the book. I made a lighter salad version of succotash for summer with lima beans or butter beans, as we call them in the South. And I added bacon since everything is better with bacon. :)
Succotash Salad with Bacon
Serves 6 – 8
3 – 4 slices of bacon
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen lima beans, cooked al dente
4 – 5 cups of fresh corn, cooked and removed from cob, (about 6 ears)
1 pint cherry, or grape tomatoes, halved
1 – 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cook bacon until crisp, set aside, and crumble. Remove bacon drippings from pan, reserving 2 tablespoons in the pan. Add chopped onion to bacon drippings and cook over medium heat until onion is translucent and tender, about 5 minutes.
Lower the heat and add the beans and corn and stirring until just heated through, about 1 – 2 minutes.
Transfer cooked ingredients to a large bowl and add tomatoes and lime juice. Just before serving add basil, bacon, and season with salt and pepper to taste. You can find a printable recipe, here.
“The green beans and corn were each just slightly firm, the bacon was fragrant and not too salty, the nearly diaphanous white onion pieces were in that goldilocks zone of piquancy, neither overbearing nor nominal.”
“Bars” was my favorite chapter in the book and not just for the recipes:
“She was not raised to confront people or defend herself in a confrontation; she was raised to appease, to mollify, to calm, to tuck little monsters in a night, to apologize for things she screwed up without realizing, to forgive, to sweeten, and her bars did that for the world, they were her I’m Sorry, they were her Like Me, they were her Love Freely Given.”
“Everyone knew that Deer Lake made the best bars in the county—one of them had won the Bars division of the County Fair Bake-Off six years in a row—and everyone knew that the best bars in Deer Lake were made by the women of First Lutheran Church.”
“Pat didn’t like to toot her own horn, but her peanut butter bars had won the blue ribbon for Best Bars of the last six years now. Still, she couldn’t rest on her laurels, because there were some really darn good bars out there. Like Sandra Bratholdt’s cherry coffee cake bars, Frances Mitzel’s sour cream raisin bars, Corrina Nelsen’s lemon bars, and Barb Ramstad’s Kraft caramel bars.”
I made Pat Prager’s Blue Ribbon Peanut Butter Bars. The recipe comes from 1984 edition of First Lutheran Church Women, a cookbook released by the First Lutheran Church in Hunter, North Dakota where the author’s grandmother was born, which includes recipes from his great-grandmother.
Peanut Butter Bars, No-bake, Easy, and Blue Ribbon-Worthy!
Makes approximately 24 bars
I increased the amount of chocolate chips in the recipe and substituted semi-sweet morsels for milk chocolate.
2 ½ cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
1 cup melted butter
1 cup peanut butter
2 ½ cups powdered sugar
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate morsels
Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, peanut butter, and sugar. Press into a greased 9 x 13 inch pan. Melt chocolate chips according to package directions and spread over peanut butter layer. Refrigerate just until firm. Cut into bars and serve. You can find a printable recipe, here.
“Showing the ways in which food provides us with both comfort and community, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is by turns quirky, hilarious, and heartbreaking. This is a novel about one girl’s extraordinary farm-to-table success story, how food becomes the common language of our lives, and the bittersweet nature of life itself—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises.”
*Thanks to Penguin Random House for providing copies of Kitchens of the Great Midwest for our review.
Visit Novel Bakers, Jain and Michael Lee for a taste of Kitchens of the Great Midwest:
Thank you for your visit, also sharing with: