I was reading something somewhere, in print or online, that mentioned a new book, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal.
I did a very poor job skimming the article, because I assumed the book was a food memoir or travelogue, like Stir, which I wrote about two weeks ago, so I quickly requested a review copy so I could write about it for Feed the Spirit.
I had no clue until the book arrived that it is actually a novel. But I’m still writing about it because it is so good and so much fun.
A satirical look at foodie culture
BookForum called it “the first novel about the emergence and current state of foodie culture,” and that part of it is very funny in a way somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.
But there’s more to the book than a send-up of 21st century eating habits.
Stradal’s debut novel chronicles the education and career of Eva Thorvald, a young woman blessed with a “once-in-a-generation palate” who becomes one of the most sought-after chefs in the country.
The book’s format is unusual (I almost said “unique” but I don’t know for a fact that another writer hasn’t done the same thing).
Eva’s story is told almost entirely through stories about others in chapters where she’s only a minor character. Each chapter is named for a food and tells how that food, and the person associated with it, came into and influenced her life. All the strands some together at the end.
Pat’s winning recipe
There are a few recipes in the book, including the one below for Pat Prager’s award-winning peanut-butter bars. Middle-aged, small-town, church-lady Pat, after winning the blue ribbon at her Minnesota county fair, takes her recipe to the “Petite Noisette Best of Bake,” in Minnesapolis, a chi-chi competition run by a foodie blog where everything is organic, locally sourced and GMO-free.
Other contestants have listed the ingredients for their recipes in excruciating detail, like “2 cups gluten-free oats sourced from the organic, pesticide- and GMO-free farm of Seymour and Peonie Schmidt, Faribault, MN, home-processed into oat flour.”
When Pat, who didn’t realize she should have done this, is asked by two young attendees at the bake-off, Dylan and Oona, what is in her bars, she lists the ingredients: graham crackers, butter, peanut butter, powdered sugar, chocolate chips.
“Butter?” Oona said. “What kind? Almond butter?”
“No, regular milk butrter. Like from cows.”
“I don’t know. It’s just Land O’Lakes butter. It was what was on sale.”
“Does their milk have bovine growth hormone?” Oona asked Dylan.
“I don’t know, but I think they’re on the list,” Dylan said.
(Oona, who is pregnant, then wonders if she should vomit up the bars to protect her baby from the bovine growth hormone in Pat’s peanut butter bars.)
“Cow’s milk is really bad, especially for children,” Dylan said.
“It’s full of a bunch of hormones and toxins,” Oona said.
Pat looked at Sam. “Well, I ate these same bars almost every month when I was pregnant with him, and he turned out OK.”
“But that was your choice,” Oona said. “It’s not mine. You have to care about what other people put in their bodies….You can’t just blindly feed these to pregnant people.”
If you don’t share Oona’s concerns, here’s a recipe for Pat’s famous no-bake peanut butter bars.
I suggest you use really good chocolate chips for the topping. If you use cheap, junky chocolate chips, you may need to add some additional butter or a few teaspoons of boiling water as you’re melting them to get them to melt smoothly.
Watch out, this dish is very rich! You’ll probably want to cut it into small bars.
(The photo with the recipe is by Maegan Tintari, via Flickr Creative Commons.)