The Lager Queen of Minnesota

If you are not hungry for pie and thirsty for beer as you read J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, you are a better person than I am.  After reading about Edith’s award winning pies, I had to take a break to buy and eat some pie.  The craving for ale, lager. or stout was easy to overcome since the only beer I really like is Guinness and only if I am drinking it in Ireland – something about the water, I think, makes it taste so good there I could have it for breakfast.  Luckily, I don’t get to Ireland often.

Expecting a cozy tale of lovable elderly ladies around the quilting circle, I was pleasantly surprised by Stradal’s complicated family saga and learned more about the making of beer than I can ever use – unless I too get the opportunity to make a chocolate beer in my old age.

Two sisters, Edith, the pie maker, and Helen, the chemist and brewmeister, part ways when their father dies and leaves the farm to Helen.  Without sharing the profits, Helen sells the farm and uses the money to start a brewery.  Throughout the story, Helen is the selfish, smart, money-hungry sister pitted against sweet, calm, pie-making Edith.   Forsaking her ideal of the perfect beer, Helen and her husband make Blotz, a cheap beer appealing to the masses and make a fortune.  Helen, however, does not share her good fortune with her sister.

Left penniless after her husband’s death, Edith works baking pies in a nursing home and as a janitor at a fast food restaurant, raising her teenage granddaughter, Diane, after the fatal crash of Edith’s daughter.  Edith is the good sister, unrewarded with money for all her hard work, but, of course, loved by all.

Despite the stereotypes, the main characters are convincing, but as the tale evolves into desparate times for Edith, a newfound career in brewing for Diane with Edith and her senior friends working at the brewery, and the  evolution of craft beer destroying Helen’s empire, the ending is almost predictable.

I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota in a day, enjoying the possibility of ladies over sixty having a new career in an unlikely business.  Looking for more information on craft beer, I found Williams Sonoma sells a Craft Beer Kit – seems anyone can try making beer.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

shopping    Reading J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest had the same unexpected effect as Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough – both inspired me to get into the kitchen to make something from scratch.  This slim paperback has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for a few years, but its surprising mix of melancholy, humor, and satire surrounding the life of a food prodigy is still fresh.

Eva Thorvald grew hot peppers in her closet as a child, and grew up to be a world famous chef.  Her journey was not easy, first abandoned by her mother when she was only a few months old, followed by the sudden death of her father, a chef who started his cooking journey making Scandinavian lutefish.  She’s raised by her aunt and uncle as their own child in a poor but loving home.

The first chapters chronicle Eva’s life from toddler to pre-teen to young adult, as she matures into an independent and creative person who seems focused on a life with food.   Her hot pepper revenge on middle school bullies is fun to watch and her reinvention of the caesar salad will make your mouth water.  She has a knack for combining an amazing taste for  the unusual with expert marketing skills, quietly learning from the best chefs as she grows into her own style.

Although she is the heroine of the story, Eva disappears in the second half of the book, as stories of those who know her and know of her take over the narrative.  The names are not always familiar and it takes attention to realize how their lives are connected to Eva. When she resurfaces in short appearances, the story is better for it, and when, finally, in the last chapter Stradal forces an unexpected reunion with Eva’s mother, the outcome is not as expected but realistic, and still satisfying in its possibilities.

Throughout the book, Stradel inserts a satiric note on foodies with their idiosyncracies and gullible palates. Stradel makes the point of how paying more for labels does not necessarily result in better taste, but freshness always counts.  Eva outmatches a fellow chef by driving to the fields to pick the kernels off the stalks the morning of the dinner for her own version of a succotash dish.  Later in the book, she grows her own.

With Eva’s career culminating in serving five thousand dollar a plate dinners to eager patrons who have patiently survived an incredibly long waiting list for years, Stradel takes a poke at elite restaurants with exorbitant prices.  Not surprisingly, the last dinner served in the book has all the flavors of home cooking, but masked with descriptions warranting the high price.  The dessert includes a simple five ingredient bar – here’s the recipe – you might have made a version yourself.

Strudel’s story reminded me of those first amazing bites of an old world recipe from my grandmother when I was a girl as well as the seven course meal from an award winning chef at a restaurant with a long waiting list – both were worthy of respect and both captured the essence of what food is supposed to be.  But Eva’s coming of age and her fabulous cooking also inspired me to try something old with a new twist – maybe some chocolate grated into mac and cheese?