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When J. Ryan Stradal was growing up in Hastings, Minnesota, the cuisine in his house wasn’t very challenging. But when he was in high school, he began to explore the ethnic restaurants of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
Now, Stradal brings his memories of the kitchens he grew up in, as well as his own culinary adventures, to his debut novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest.”
The book centers around Eva, whose own culinary explorations take her from a childhood of frozen fish sticks and peas to superstardom in the culinary world.
Stradal discussed his novel with Here & Now‘s Robin Young.
By J. Ryan Stradal
Lars Thorvald loved two women. That was it, he thought in passing, while he sat on the cold concrete steps of his apartment building. Perhaps he would ‘ve loved more than two, but it just didn’t seem like things were going to work out like that.
That morning, while defying a doctor’s orders by pureeing a braised pork shoulder, he’d stared out his kitchen window at the snow on the roof of the Happy Chef restaurant across the highway and sung a love song to one of those two girls, his baby daughter, while she slept on the living room floor. He was singing a Beatles song, replacing the name of the girl in the old tune with the name of the girl in the room.
He hadn’t told a woman “I love you” until he was twenty-eight. He didn’t lose his virginity until he was twenty-eight either. At least he’d had his first kiss when he was twenty-one, even if that woman quit re turning his calls less than a week later.
Lars blamed his sorry luck with women on his lack of teenage romance, and he blamed his lack of teenage romance on the fact that he was the worst-smelling kid in his grade, every year. He stunk like the floor of a fish market each Christmas, starting at age twelve, and even when he didn’t smell terrible, the other kids acted like he did, because that’s what kids do. “Fish Boy,” they called him, year round, and it was all the fault of an old Swedish woman named Dorothy Seaborg.
On a December afternoon in 1971, Dorothy Seaborg of Duluth, Minnesota, fell on the ice and broke her hip while walking to her mailbox, disrupting the supply line of lutefisk for the Sunday Advent dinners at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church. Lars’s father, Gustaf Thorvald of Duluth’s Gustaf & Sons bakery, and one of the most conspicuous Norwegians between Cloquet and Two Harbors-promised everyone in St. Olaf’s Fellowship Hall that there would be no break in lutefisk continuity; his family would step in and carry on the brutal Scandinavian tradition for the benefit of the entire Twin Ports region.
Never mind that neither Gustaf, his wife, Elin, nor his children had ever even seen a live whitefish before, much less caught one, pounded it, dried it, soaked it in lye, resoaked it in cold water, or done the careful cooking required to make something that, when perfectly prepared, looked like jellied smog and smelled like boiled aquarium water. Since everyone in the house was equally unqualified for the job, the work fell to Lars, age twelve, and his younger brother Jarl, age ten, sparing the youngest sibling, nine-year-old Sigmund, but only because he actually liked the stuff.
“If Lars and Jarl don’t like it,” Gustaf told Elin, “I can count on them not to eat any. It’ll eliminate loss and breakage.”
Gustaf was satisfied with this reasoning, and while Elin still thought it was a mean thing to do to their young sons, she said nothing. Theirs was a mixed-race marriage-between a Norwegian and a Dane-and thus all things culturally important to one but not the other were given a free pass and critiqued only in unmixed company.
Yearly intimate contact with their cultural heritage failed to evolve the Thorvald boys’ sensibilities. Jarl, who still ate his own snot, much preferred the taste of boogers to lutefisk, given that the consistency and color were the same. Lars, meanwhile, was stumped by the old Scandinavian women who walked up to him in church and said, “Any young man who makes lutefisk like you do is going to be quite popular with the ladies.” In Lars’s experience, lutefisk skills usually inspired revulsion or, at best, indifference among prospective dates. Even the girls who claimed they liked lutefisk didn’t want to smell it when they weren’t eating it, and Lars couldn’t give them much of a choice. The once-anticipated holiday season had become for Lars a cruel month of stench and rejection, and thanks to the boys at school, its social effects lingered long after everyone’s desiccated Christmas trees were abandoned by the curbside.
By the time Lars was eighteen, whatever tolerance he’d once had for this uncompromising tradition had long eroded. His hands were scarred from several Advents of soaking dried whitefish in lye, and every year the smell clung harder to his pores, fingernails, hair, and shoes, and not just because their surface areas had increased with maturity. Lars had also grown to become a little wizard in the kitchen, and by his unintentionally mastering the tragic hobby of lutefisk preparation, its potency was skyrocketing. Lutherans were driving from as far away as Fergus Falls to try the “Thorvald lutefisk,” and there wasn’t an attractive young woman among any of them.
As if to mock him further every year, Lars’s dad would shove a forkful of the crap in his face each Christmas.
“Just a bite,” Gustaf would say. “Your ancestors ate this to survive the long winters.”
“And how did they survive lutefisk?” Lars asked once.
“Take some pride in your work, son,” Gustaf said, and took away his lefse in punishment.
In 1978, Lars graduated from high school and got the heck out of Duluth. His grades could’ve gotten him into a nice Lutheran school like Gustavus Adolphus or Augsburg, but Lars wanted to be a chef, and he didn’t see what good college would do him other than to delay that goal by four years. Instead he moved down to the Cities, looking for a girlfriend and for kitchen work in whatever order, requiring only that no one insist he make lutefisk. That attitude sure left a lot more options open than his father had predicted.
After a ten-year unpaid apprenticeship at Gustaf & Sons, Lars was already skilled at baking—arguably the most difficult of all culinary duties—but didn’t want to fall back on that. Because he only chose jobs that could teach him something, and went on dates about as often as a vegetarian restaurant opened near an interstate highway, he gained a pretty decent handle on French, Italian, German, and American cuisine in just under a decade.
By October 1987, as his home state was enraptured by the Twins winning their first World Series ever, Lars had earned a job as a chef at Hutmacher’s, a trendy lakeside restaurant that attracted big celebrities, like meteorologists, state senators, and local pro athletes. For years, it was said, a Twins player could enjoy his meals at Hutmacher’s unremarked and unmolested, but by the week Lars was hired, jubilant ballplayers were regularly turning the late shift into an upbeat party.
Amid the circumstance of a long-suffering sports team’s success, the strange joy of it all spread through the restaurant. It was during these happy weeks when Cynthia Hargreaves, the smartest waitress on staff— she gave the best wine pairing advice of any of the servers—seemed to take an interest in Lars. By this time, he was twenty-eight, growing a pale hairy inner tube around his waist, and already going bald. Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most. This, to Lars, made her feel approachable.
When she came back to the kitchen, the guys would all openly check her out, but Lars refrained. Instead, he’d look her in the face while he told her things like, “Tell them it’ll be five more minutes on that veal,” and “No, I will not hold the garlic—it’s pesto.”
“Oh, you can’t make a sauce with just pine nuts, olive oil, basil, and Romano?” she asked.
He was a bit impressed that she knew the other ingredients off the top of her head. Maybe he shouldn’t have been, but it just wasn’t the kind of thing he expected people outside a kitchen to know. He knew he must have communicated this to her when he saw how she was smiling back at him knowingly, like he had been caught in the act of something.
“Well, you know, I can try,” he said. “But then it’s not pesto, it’s something else.”
“How fresh is the basil?” she asked. “Pesto lives or dies by its basil.” He admired her decisive way of phrasing that incorrect opinion. It was actually the preparation that determined its quality; proper pesto, he had learned during a previous job at Pronto Ristorante, is made with a mortar and pestle. It makes all the difference.
“It’s two days old,” he said.
“Where’d you get it from? St. Paul Farmers’ Market?” “Yeah, from Anna Hlavek.”
“Oh, you should get it from Ellen Chamberlain. Ellen grows the best basil.”
Such wonderfully erroneous food opinions! This was getting Lars all riled up. Still, in his Minneapolis years, liberated from both his lutefisk stench and its reputation, he’d driven women away due to what they called his “eagerness,” and he couldn’t allow that to happen again.
“Oh, she does, now?” he asked her, continuing to work, not looking up at her.
“Yeah,” she said, stepping closer to him, trying to keep him engaged. “Anna grows sweet corn in the same plot as her basil. You know what sweet corn does to soil.”
She had a point, if that were true. “I didn’t know Anna grew sweet corn.”
“She doesn’t sell it to the public.” She smiled at him again. “And I’ll tell my customer yes on the garlic-free pesto, anyway.”
“I want to see you work a little harder back here,” she said.
He couldn’t help it—he was in love by the time she left the kitchen— but love made him feel sad and doomed, as usual. What he didn’t know was that she’d suffered through a decade of cool, commitment-phobic men, and Lars’s kindness, but mostly his effusive, overt enthusiasm for her, was at that time exactly what she wanted in a partner.
From Kitchens of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal published on July 28, 2015 by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by J. Ryan Stradal, 2015.