Although J. Ryan Stradal lives in Los Angeles, he left his heart in Minnesota. The Hastings, Minn., native moved to L.A. 16 years ago and found work in the entertainment industry, landing jobs in "unscripted television," i.e., reality shows and documentaries. But, he says, even though he loves the SoCa vibe, he'd rather write about his homeland than about his adopted one. "The Midwest is really dear to me," he says. "It's so rich, and ignored by people on the coasts. I've seen so many stereotypical renderings: people think it's all Fargo. I haven't read anything about the Midwesterners I grew up with and the Midwest I grew up in. I wanted to write the book that I needed to see in the world."
Stradal's debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking, Aug.), is the story of Eva Thorvald, who triumphs over a difficult childhood by becoming a world-famous chef operating a pop-up restaurant that moves around Minnesota, satisfying the discerning diners who snag coveted reservations. Of course, with a foodie protagonist like Thorvald and a setting like Minnesota, props include quintessential culinary delights particular to the region that will surely warm the hearts of any readers lucky enough to have partaken of such delicacies: lutefisk, hotdish, and [dessert] bars.
Stradal says that he wanted to hang his story around food because, he confesses, he has always been intrigued by the "dichotomy" of Midwestern cuisine and because food is so central to people's lives. Growing up in the 1980s, Stradal remembers meals from his childhood as bland and boring, with an emphasis on processed foods from packages. He describes the current state of Midwestern cuisine as traditional, but in recent years there's been a "confident stride" toward eating local and organic foods. "Minnesotans are now conscientious of their food choices in a way that wasn't true when I was growing up," he says. "It's interesting to me to set this novel in the context of this culinary revolution."
In a way, he says, this new emphasis on eating fresh foods hark back to an earlier era: one of his main sources in conceptualizing the "old-school" meals prepared by Thorvald in her pop-up restaurants was a spiral-bound book of recipes compiled by the church ladies at the Lutheran church his grandmother attended in Hunter, N.D., west of Fargo.
Stradal signs today at the PRH booth (3119) at Table 2, 1:30–2:30 p.m.
This article appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.