The United States of Arby’s and Friday Fish Frys

No, it’s not a grape salad. If J. Ryan Stradal had to define a dish that epitomizes Minnesota, it might be a walleye in a pan, Tater Tot Hotdish, or prime rib served lavishly on a Saturday night at a local supper club. But if the New York Times ran a Piece 2014 on regional Thanksgiving delicacies pointed to a sour cream-y grape salad in Minnesota. “Nobody in Minnesota can remember ever having grape salad,” Stradal chuckled quietly from his home in Burbank, California.

Stradal is the New York Times Bestselling author of a trio of novels, mostly set in Minnesota, where life revolves around food (because it’s not always like that?). Book after book, he immortalizes the all-too-overlooked regional cuisine of the Midwest — and its people. The books are delightful reads which I ripped through in quick succession, always 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 highly recommend digging in.

In his first book, 2015 Kitchens of the Great Midwest, we follow a food prodigy who grows into a revered and feared celebrity chef; The book is structured by characters who all meet in a fabulous final scene. In 2019 The Camp Queen of Minnesota (my favourite; cried a bit), the story of a high school student learning 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 featuring work 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, page-turning story. He “grew up on a Bruce Springsteen song,” he told me. His father worked in an oil refinery and his mother was a waitress at Perkins with aspirations to be a writer. She came home from work with a distinct smell of “ranch dressing and fries and cigarette smoke,” he said. “My family struggled financially for much of my childhood, but we had a hell of a time.”

Cookbooks can feature photos of food, people and places, while evoking smells and flavors that draw you in. But Stradal’s novels sneak us into the human heart. Its characters are so fully realized that you feel like you’re sitting at their table. Not only does it show the breadth of this food region, but also the soul of the people who cook it. (Cookbook trilogy by Abra Berensportraying the Midwestern farmers between 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 so much like women I’ve known 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 on me, I have to write about these people,'” he said. “I don’t see enough writing about her.”

The food becomes a character alongside them, and the menu is huge. 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 in camp queento greasy diner food at Jorby’s chain Supper Club (which I like to think was named by mixing “Jorts” and “Arby’s”). Stradal’s palette (palate?) is random.

“People generally only have access to what they can afford. And whatever a fancy meal or a significant meal is to them – shall we say “significant” – can change depending on the approach. And why not celebrate it?” 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 felt the same way as a kid. Just talking about it puts him in this carpeted lobby transfixed by lobsters crawling in their murky tank. His retrospect is untarnished by cynicism (something I need to learn from him). Capturing the joy that food brings to people, no matter the circumstances, is Stradal’s specialty.

And no place is more solemn than a dinner club.

The characters are so fully realized that you feel as if you are sitting at their table.

In February, on one of the happiest nights of my year so far, I was at a supper club called The Ranch in Hayward, Wisconsin, in 2º Fahrenheit. The setting didn’t feel pulled from the pages of Stradal’s novel, but I felt more like I’d 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 spoke of their recent hip surgeries and church events. How often do you go from reading a novel to suddenly immersing yourself in it? Hardly ever!

From what I had read Saturday night at the Lakeside Supper ClubI knew that there are traditions in supper clubs that make them supper clubs and not just restaurants. The complimentary indulgence tray of homemade pickles, a sign of generosity, hospitality and the universal greatness of beer cheese, was one of them. The others?

“It’s usually rural,” Stradal said from his landline phone in Burbank, where he lives with his family in a valley with unreliable connectivity. “It’s always been a family owned restaurant that quite simply provides the best possible food for the people within a 30 mile radius.”

The reason the novels ring so true isn’t just because Stradal lived in those worlds, but because he does extensive research for each book – you could probably learn how to brew beer based off of a few paragraphs camp queen. For Saturday night, he called on a handful of current and former supper club owners to get their stories, their ups and downs, and details of what cocktails they mixed in the 1970s (so many Harvey Wallbangers) as part of the book plays. He even had a mixologist create a recipe for Betty’s Lemonade, a drink from the book made with whiskey, lemonade, and a squirt of lemonade Bubble up soda.

A supper club used to be both dinner and a club—and some still are. “You go there at 5 and leave at 11. You don’t get pushed out of your seat,” Stradal said. There could be live music, dancing. The drink of choice is usually a Brandy Old-Fashioned, Friday nights are for fish fries, and dessert is usually a frozen alcoholic drink like a Crème de Menthe Grasshopper. “I really respect a place that has stayed and kept its ambitions modest: They just tried to make the best food for the people who could afford it in that area. 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 was everything I’d read about and dreamed about: creamy pickled herring, a bowl of crackers to unwrap and sprinkled the table with plastic, curled carrots, and pre-baked bread-and-butter pickles. pricked with a toothpick. For mains I had grilled sunburnt pike-perch with a slice of lemon and not much else, presented on a fish-shaped platter. As I researched it, I remembered another description Stradal had for Supper Clubs, which I think applies to his books as well: “It’s the restaurant of the period, but also timeless. It’s anachronistic, but eternal.”

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