J. Ryan Stradal’s trio of Minnesota novels might as well have a ranch side.
No, it’s not a grape salad. If J. Ryan Stradal had to define a dish that epitomizes Minnesota, it might be seared walleye, Tater Tot Hotdish, or prime rib served lavishly on a Saturday night at a local supper club. But if the New York Times frog Piece In 2014, via Regional Thanksgiving Delicatessen, it hinted at a sour cream grape salad in Minnesota. “No one in Minnesota could remember ever eating grape salad,” Stradal chuckled from his home in Burbank, California.
Stradal is the one New York Times Bestselling author of a trio of novels, mostly set in Minnesota, where life revolves around food (because that’s not always the case?). Book after book, he immortalizes the all-too-overlooked regional cuisine of the Midwest — and its people. The books are wonderful reading that I read through in quick succession and always left wanting more. It is safe to say that no other contemporary writer has presented the food of the so-called flyover country on such a large platter as Stradal’s. And I can only warmly recommend checking it out.
In his first book, 2015 Kitchens of the Great MidwestIn 2019 we accompany an exceptional talent from the food sector, who grows into a revered and feared star chef; The structure of the book is characters who all meet in a fabulous final scene. In 2019 The Camp Queen of Minnesota (my favourite; cried a little), the story of a high school student who learns how to brew craft beer is interwoven with the story of her estranged aunt, a brewer of a cheap light beer with the incredible catchphrase “Drink a lot.” “It’s Blotz.” And Saturday night at the Lakeside Supper Club, which was released in April this year, is about a family trying to hold on to their supper club business at odds with a Perkins-like national chain encroaching on their territory. Stradal also served as TASTE’s fiction editor and worked on two subjects and features works by Helen Phillips, Esmé Weijun Wang, Lincoln Michel, and Viet Thanh Nguyen.
It is safe to say that no other contemporary writer has presented the food of the so-called flyover country on such a large platter as Stradal’s.
Stradal, 47, grew up in Hastings, Minnesota and was for a time the senior story producer for reality TV (Deadliest Catch, memory wars), meaning he knows how to write a compelling, compelling story. He was raised “on a Bruce Springsteen song,” he told me. His father worked in an oil refinery and his mother was a waitress at Perkins and aspired to be a writer. She came home from work with a distinct scent of “ranch dressing, french fries and cigarette smoke,” he said. “My family struggled financially for most of my childhood, but we had a hell of a time.”
Cookbooks can feature photos of food, people and places while evoking smells and tastes that draw you in. But Stradal’s novels take us into the human heart. His characters are so fully realized that you feel like you’re sitting at their table. It not only shows the breadth of this culinary region, but also the soul of the people who prepare it. (The Cookbook Trilogy by Abra Berenswhich introduces Midwestern farmers through recipes, makes a similar connection between food and people.) One of my favorite Stradal characters is Edith in camp queen, a godly grandma who bakes blue ribbon pies but also works at Arby’s. She felt a lot like women I knew in real life but rarely encountered in fiction. Her life is full, she is happy and Arbys? Yummy.
“When I finally got my first book deal, I was like, ‘Okay, it’s up to me, I have to write about these people,'” he said. “I don’t think they get enough writing about her.”
The food becomes a character alongside them and the menu is extensive. Stradal’s pages will have you devouring everything from homey peanut butter bars to organic heirloom corn salad kitchensto the apple pie going to a local competition camp queento greasy diner food at the chain Jorby’s in supper club (I like to think that the name is a cross between ‘Jorts’ and ‘Arby’s.’) Stradal’s writing palette (palate?) is indiscriminate.
“People will generally only have access to what they can afford. And whatever a fancy meal or a meaningful meal is for them – shall we say “meaningful” – it can change depending on the approach. So why not celebrate?” Stradal is on the board of 826LA, a nonprofit creative writing and tutoring organization, and he mentioned that the students he works with there think Red Lobster is the fanciest restaurant in the world — and that he thought the same way when he was a kid. Just talking about it transports him to the carpeted lobby, mesmerized by lobsters crawling around in their murky tank. His review is free of cynicism (something I need to learn from him). Stradal’s specialty is capturing the joy that food brings to people regardless of the circumstances.
And no place is more solemn than a dinner club.
The characters are portrayed in such a complete way that one feels as if they are sitting at their table.
On one of the happiest nights of my year so far, I was at a supper club called The Ranch in Hayward, Wisconsin on a February night with 2F. The setting didn’t feel as if it had sprung from the pages of Stradal’s novel, but rather as if I had been flattened, shrunk and bookmarked into the pages myself. The red walls matched all the red checked flannel shirts in the room; Artificial firewood in a cast-iron stove gave off a cozy electric glow. Antique tea kettles and pans hung from the rafters. The guests around me talked about their recent hip surgeries and church events. How often does it happen that after reading a novel you suddenly sink into it? Hardly ever!
From what I’ve read Saturday night at the Lakeside Supper ClubI knew that supper clubs have traditions that make them supper clubs and not just restaurants. One of them was the complimentary relish tray of homemade pickles, a mark of generosity, hospitality and the universal awesomeness of beer cheese. The others?
“It’s usually rural,” Stradal said from his landline in Burbank, where he lives with his family in a valley with unreliable connectivity. “It’s always been a family run restaurant that quite simply provides the best possible food for the people within a 30 mile radius.”
The reason the novels sound so true is not only because Stradal lived in those worlds, but also because he does extensive research for each book – a few paragraphs could probably teach you how to brew beer camp queen. For Saturday night, he called up a handful of current and former supper club owners to get their stories, their ups and downs, and the details of what cocktails they mixed (so many Harvey wallbangers) in the 1970s as part of the book takes place . He even had a mixologist create a recipe for Betty’s Lemonade, a drink from the book made with whiskey, lemonade, and a dash of alcohol Fizz up lemonade.
A supper club used to be both a supper and a club—and some still are. “You would go there at 5am and leave at 11am. You don’t let yourself be pushed from your seat,” said Stradal. There might be live music and dancing. The drink of choice is usually an old-fashioned brandy, Friday nights are fish fries and for dessert there is usually a frozen succulent drink like a Crème de Menthe Grasshopper. “I really respect a place that stuck with it and kept its ambitions modest: They just tried to make the best food for the people in the area who could afford it. And to be honest, I don’t know if a restaurant has to do much more than that.” Above all, Stradal said: “Most of the supper clubs are the nicest restaurants in America.”
When my relish tray arrived, it contained everything I’d read and dreamed about: creamy pickled herring, a bowl of crackers to unwrap and sprinkle the table with plastic, crumpled carrots, and pre-made bread-and-butter pickles. stabbed with a toothpick. For mains I had grilled sunburnt pike-perch with a lemon wedge and not much else, presented on a fish-shaped platter. As I thought about it, I thought of another description Stradal had for Supper Clubs, which I think also applies to his books: “It’s the restaurant out of time, but also timeless.” It’s anachronistic, but eternal. “