Food was in her DNA and was her destiny. “In the same fashion that a musical parent may curate their child’s exposure to certain songs, Lars had spent weeks plotting a menu for his baby daughter’s first months.” Baby Eva was exposed to guacamole, pureed prunes, and hummus all within in the first week of her life. With dry humor (reminiscent of Garrison Keillor and his Lake Wobegon stories), J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel tells the story of Eva Thorvald. She is just a baby when her mother leaves to pursue her passion for wine. Off to the wine country in California she goes with a dashing sommelier in tow. And, her father dies. But, in spite of never really knowing her chef father and wine-loving mother, Eva’s interests steer to the culinary. In elementary school, she traffics in the hottest habanera peppers in the state by growing them in her closet. In high school, she trains as an intern at the swankiest restaurant in town. In due course, she develops into one of the most esteemed, most exciting chefs in the country, running an ultra-chic pop-up supper club called “The Dinner,” with a four-year-long waiting list and a five-thousand-dollar-a-plate price tag.
Although Eva’s story is stimulating enough on its own, the true beauty of the book comes from its being told in interrelated layers from different points of view. The reader sees Eva through the eyes of her father, her boyfriend, a rival, a cousin, and others. Piecing together Eva’s life from these collaged stories, we get a 360 view of her world, which makes the ending feel particularly gratifying.
One of the most amusing characters is Pat Prager, the reigning cookie-bar champion of the annual county fair bake-off – a cut-throat competition dominated by women from the local Lutheran church. Pat’s bars face fierce opposition as they are pitted against the scripture-based “Resurrection” rolls. Foodie cultures collide when Pat later enters her bars in a trendy baking contest in the big city – Minneapolis. To this Lutheran church lady, “locally sourced” means the ingredients came from the store a mile from her house. So, she’s taken aback when a young couple — dismayed that the pregnant wife has just potentially ingested bovine growth hormone from the butter in Pat’s entry — begins a serious deliberation about whether the fetus would suffer more harm if the young woman threw up the dessert or kept it down.
Stradal serves up a delectable novel full of humor, love, loss, the redemption of food, and the resilience of Midwestern people; he even includes recipes inspired by his grandmother’s Lutheran church cookbook.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 7. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, December 7 for a discussion of “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long. 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.