J Ryan Stradal: Novelist and part-time pepper farmer tells of life on the Prairie

‘I’m just a mushy peas kind of guy’

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The Independent Culture

The day I meet J Ryan Stradal for coffee at a Los Angeles bookshop, Garrison Keillor has just announced his retirement from A Prairie Home Companion, the US public radio show that he has hosted for more than 40 years. Each week, the beloved writer and raconteur reads a gently comic news report from the fictional Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon.

Keillor’s characterisation of old-fashioned Midwesterners is mostly accurate, says Stradal, who, like the Prairie Home Companion host, grew up in small-town Minnesota. “People humble about their abilities, with simple tastes but who might be intellectually sophisticated,” he explains. “The Midwestern attitude towards self-promotion is generally that it’s not a good idea.”

Stradal, an unprepossessing 39-year-old in a baseball cap and a T-shirt advertising the (Midwestern) band Guided By Voices, admits he’s not entirely comfortable “tooting [his] own horn”. But his debut novel, with its cast of vivid and varied Midwesterners, speaks for itself.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an oven-warm yet bittersweet collection of character studies circling the story of Eva Thorvald, who loses her mother and father before she’s old enough to remember them, but is bequeathed a “once-in-a-generation palate” and grows up to be the feted chef behind a fantastical pop-up dinner club with a four-year waiting list.

Told from the perspective of Eva’s family, friends, passing acquaintances and distant admirers, the book contains several real recipes – including French onion soup, chicken wild rice casserole, and peanut butter and chocolate bars – most of which were gleaned from a cookbook published by Stradal’s grandmother’s church in North Dakota.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is often hilariously precise in its cultural geography: one character, described as “one of the most conspicuous Norwegians between Cloquet and Two Harbors” makes it his mission to provide the local Lutheran community with its regular supply of the Scandinavian delicacy lutefisk, a somewhat revolting-sounding gelatinous fish dish.

But in spite of its locavorous detail, the novel’s plot is driven by a universal truth: that food brings people together. It has already been translated for publication in Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Brazil. “I thought it would be of some regional interest, that I’d do some readings at local bookstores in Minnesota and a dozen people might show up,” Stradal says. “I was shocked that people east of Michigan or west of South Dakota cared about it.”

Stradal grew up in Hastings, Minnesota, eating his parents’ home-cooked Midwestern comfort food. The J stands for nothing, apparently – he didn’t know it was in his name until he saw it on his birth certificate – and he goes by the name Ryan. He started going to restaurants when he was still a teenager. “I got into food as a replacement for travel,” he says. “I really wanted to see the world as a kid and I couldn’t afford it, but I could afford to eat at interesting restaurants. So I would eat at Minneapolis and St Paul’s Thai or Ethiopian restaurants. I was seeing the world through Minnesota’s version of its cuisine.”

Like many young and ambitious Midwesterners, Stradal moved first to Chicago – to study radio, TV and film at Northwestern University – and then made for the coast. Many of his friends went to New York, he recalls, but he preferred the weather in California, and moved to LA in 1998, where he still lives with his girlfriend, a nurse, in the fashionable Silver Lake neighbourhood. For more than a decade, he worked in TV production, on shows including Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.

In California, he was also exposed to a food culture where people read the ingredients labels and worried about GMOs or the provenance of their zucchini. The clash of food cultures is dramatised in one of his book’s set pieces, when Pat, a woman accustomed to winning the annual County Fair Bake-Off, enters her famous peanut butter bars in a fancy, big city cooking contest. “Where did you source your ingredients from, are they local?” asks one hipster foodie, to which Pat replies: “Yeah ... they’re from the store about a mile from my house.”

The satire is gentle, and Stradal avoids taking sides. “I grew up in Pat’s world, and if I’m served peanut butter bars, I’d prefer them the way she would make them,” he says, but adds that he also sympathises with the more conscientious modern eater: “I don’t think it’s wrong to want to know where your food ingredients come from.”

Kitchens is dedicated to Stradal’s mother, Karen, from whom he inherited his love of literature. A voracious reader and aspiring novelist, she returned to university when Stradal was a boy, to complete the English degree she’d abandoned when she first met his father, Roger. Her death from cancer in 2005 almost inevitably looms over her son’s novel, in ways large and small. Many of the characters have parents who are absent or deceased, while one dying mother insists on drinking margaritas in the depths of her illness, just as Karen did.

More importantly, Kitchens is written with the same generous spirit that his mother brought to her own short stories, Stradal says. “I think the kindness I feel towards my characters is redolent of my mother’s attitude. I think I treat Midwesterners in the way she would have done.” His father, who rarely reads fiction, told him that he’d read the book, “really slowly, because he didn’t want it to end.”

After our conversation, Stradal is heading home to Silver Lake to check on his first successful crop of hot peppers. When he moves into a place with more outdoor space, he says, he plans to get into growing heirloom tomatoes. One of the funniest – and most educational – exchanges in his book comes when Eva and a snooty kitchen rival debate the relative merits of different heirloom tomato varieties.

For all the book’s foodie intricacies, Stradal is more passionate about wine than solids. He’s the guy who’ll bring just the right bottle to match the main course at a dinner party. And although Eva’s hot-ticket dinner club serves elaborate dishes to suit the four-figure price tag, the author says his death-row meal, were he to choose it, would be something altogether more humble. “I love British food,” he says. “The upper Midwestern diet is not dissimilar to the English diet. So, it would probably be fish and chips, with a side of mushy peas.” Beats lutefisk, I guess.