Book Club Guide—Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal


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If your club is the kind that serves food, Kitchens of the Great Midwest could lend itself to some interesting pairings, though not as much as a reader might hope. You’d end up with an odd assortment if you attempt to serve most of the featured dishes. So, maybe rather than forcing your club to eat walleye and venison, you stick with a mild cheese topped with sweet pepper jelly and then—it’s inevitable—bars for dessert. I mean, “Who doesn’t like bars?” The book has recipes for both Pat Prager’s blue ribbon–winning peanut butter bars or Barb Ramstad’s Kraft caramel bars. The host of my book club had wild success with both recipes, though we all agreed Barb’s caramel bars should have taken the county fair prize.

Motherhood:

Why does Cindy choose to walk out on Eva and Lars when Eva is just a baby? Can she be forgiven for leaving her daughter? Is Eva really “better off ,” as Cindy says, without her mother in her life? Discuss the choice that Cindy makes at the end, when she comes face to face with Eva around the campfire after the meal. Is that what she should have done? Is that what you would imagine yourself doing in the same situation? Do you think Eva recognizes Cindy?

Parents and children:

Almost every chapter depicts the relationships between parents and children, and most of them are troubled. Consider the many different dynamics between parents and kids throughout the novel: Eva and her mother, Cindy; Randy and Braque with their parents; Will Prager and his father, Eli; Jordy and Adam and their dying mother. What causes the problems in many of these relationships? Do any of them improve over time, and why?

Food:

What makes Eva Thorvald a superb chef? How is her palate so unique, and how How does her cooking make others feel, from Octavia Kincade to the diners at her pop-up supper club at the end? What did you think of the author’s choice to incorporate recipes into the narrative? Compare Pat Prager’s approach to cooking with Eva’s. Is one superior to another? Are their approaches similar in any ways? Why does Eva hire Pat to cook the dessert for “The Dinner”?

The novel’s format:

Did you appreciate the author’s choice to structure the novel like a collection of short stories? Did you find the narrative hard to follow or the characters difficult to connect? Which chapters were your most and least favorite? How does the novel manage to tie all the characters together by the end? While many of the previous chapters have focused on hardship and dysfunction, does the final chapter leave you with more optimism or pessimism about the choices these characters have made and the direction their lives have taken?