One would expect that an author in the midst of a grueling 31-city national tour flogging his debut novel would be subsisting on junk food or energy bars and lots of hotel room coffee. But for J. Ryan Stradal, the author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking, Aug.), the tour includes gourmet dinners with wine pairings whipped up by professional chefs with world-class culinary credentials.
On August 1, Stradal was the featured guest-of-honor at a Dinner Lab meal for 90 of the pop-up dinner club’s subscribers at the Filament Theatre in Chicago. The five-course meal was prepared by one of the Windy City’s up-and-coming chefs, Daniel Espinoza, whose cooking style is influenced by his Mexican heritage and a stint cooking in southern France.
During a brief interview with PW on Sunday in Minneapolis, Stradal reported that before the Dinner Lab feast began, he made a presentation about his novel, the tale of a young woman, Eva Thorvald, who triumphs over a difficult childhood by becoming a world-famous chef. Thorvald ends up operating a pop-up restaurant that moves around Minnesota, satisfying discerning diners from all over the world who snag coveted reservations to meals featuring variations of traditional Midwestern dishes.
The recipes in Kitchens of the Great Midwest are actual recipes taken from a cookbook compiled by the women congregants at the Lutheran church Stradal’s grandmother once attended in Hunter, N.Dak., west of Fargo.
Following Stradal’s presentation Saturday evening, Espinoza explained to the crowd how he used Kitchens of the Great Midwest to create his own menu, which began with an heirloom tomato appetizer and concluded with peanut butter bars.
“He cooked the best lutefisk I’ve ever had in my life,” Stradal told PW. “He conjured up some amazing creations,” including a Caesar salad featuring anchovy heads, and a pan-seared walleye with a watercress pistou. Espinoza, Stradal said, obviously used Kitchens of the Great Midwest as a guide, but “took the reins himself. There were variations."
While the Dinner Lab event was the “most intense work anyone has done in interpreting” Kitchens of the Great Midwest, Stradal says, the five bookstores at which he’s appeared on his tour to date have also stepped up to the plate in terms of refreshments offered to event attendees. Towne Center Books in Pleasanton, Calif., hosted a ticketed event for customers, a dinner served al fresco with a wine bar. Peanut butter bars have been served twice so far at events. And at Sunday afternoon’s event at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, the refreshments provided for a packed house of about 40 included cupcakes from a popular local restaurant and doughnuts from a trendy local bakery.
“It’s been a pleasant experience,” Stradal said. “I thought before the tour I’d be dashing into Subways off the interstates. Most of the places I go, people are interested in cooking from the book.”