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May 9, 2023
The United States of Arby’s and Friday Fish Frys

J. Ryan Stradal’s trio of Minnesota-set novels might as well come with a side of ranch.

No, it’s not grape salad. If J. Ryan Stradal had to define a dish that embodies Minnesota, it might be panfried walleye, tater tot hotdish, or prime rib served hulkingly on a Saturday night at a local supper club. But when the New York Times ran a piece in 2014 about regional Thanksgiving food delicacies, it pointed to a sour-cream-y grape salad in Minnesota. “No one in Minnesota could remember ever eating grape salad,” Stradal laughed softly from his home in Burbank, California. 

Stradal is the New York Times best-selling author of a trio of novels largely set in Minnesota in which life revolves around food (because doesn’t it always?). One book at a time, he’s immortalizing the too-often-overlooked regional cuisine of the Midwest—and its people. The books are delightful reads that I tore through in quick succession, always wanting more. It’s safe to say that no other contemporary novelist has showcased the food of so-called flyover country on a platter as big as Stradal’s. And I highly recommend digging in. 

In his first book, 2015’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest, we follow a food prodigy misfit as she grows into a revered and feared celebrity chef; the book is structured by characters who all meet up in one fabulous, final scene. In 2019’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota (my favorite; cried a little), the story of a high school student learning how to brew craft beer is woven with the tale of her estranged aunt, a brewer of a cheap light beer with the incredible slogan “Drink lots. It’s Blotz.” And Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, which was released in April of this year, is about a family trying to hold on to their supper club business, at odds with a Perkins-like national chain impeding on their territory. Stradal also served as TASTE’s fiction editor, working on two issues and featuring the work of Helen Phillips, Esmé Weijun Wang, Lincoln Michel, and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

It’s safe to say that no other contemporary novelist has showcased the food of so-called flyover country on a platter as big as Stradal’s.

Stradal, 47, grew up in Hastings, Minnesota, and was a supervising story producer for reality TV for a while (Deadliest Catch, Storage Wars), which means he knows how to craft a compelling, page-turning story. He had an upbringing “out of a Bruce Springsteen song,” he told me. His dad worked at an oil refinery, and his mother was a waitress at Perkins with aspirations to be a writer. She’d come home from work with a distinct perfume of “ranch dressing and French fries and cigarette smoke,” he said. “My family was financially struggling for much of my childhood, but we had a pretty damn good time.”

Cookbooks can show photos of food, people, and place while conjuring smells and flavors that transport you. But Stradal’s novels sneak us into the human heart. His characters are so fully realized that you’ll feel like you’re sitting at their table. He shows not just the breadth of this food region but the soul of the people cooking it. (Abra Berens’s cookbook trilogy, which profiles Midwest farmers between recipes, accomplishes a similar food-and-people connection.) One of my favorite Stradal characters is Edith in Lager Queen, a God-fearing grandma who makes blue-ribbon pies but also works at Arby’s. She felt so similar to women I’ve known in real life but rarely encountered in fiction. Her life is full, she is happy, and Arby’s? Delicious. 

“When I finally got my first book deal, I thought, ‘Okay, it’s on me, I gotta write about these people,’” he said. “I don’t see them getting written about enough.” 

The food becomes a character alongside them, and the menu is vast. In Stradal’s pages, you’ll devour everything from homey peanut butter bars and organic heirloom corn salad in Kitchens, to the apple pie that go to a local competition in Lager Queen, to the greasy diner food at the chain Jorby’s in Supper Club (which I like to imagine was named by mashing up “jorts” and “Arby’s”.). Stradal’s writer’s palette (palate?) is indiscriminate. 

“People will generally only have access to what they can afford. And whatever a fancy meal or a significant meal is to them—let’s say “significant”—might change based on their access. And so why not celebrate that?” Stradal is on the board of 826LA, a creative writing and tutoring nonprofit, and he mentioned that the students he works with there think of Red Lobster as the fanciest restaurant in the world—and that, when he was a kid, he felt the same way. Just talking about it transports him to that carpeted lobby, transfixed by lobsters crawling in their murky tank. His hindsight is untarnished by cynicism (something I need to learn from him). Capturing the joy that food brings people, no matter the circumstances, is Stradal’s specialty. 

And no place is more celebratory than a supper club. 

Characters are so fully realized that you’ll feel like you’re sitting at their table.

On one of the happiest nights of my year thus far, I was at a supper club called The Ranch in Hayward, Wisconsin, on a 2º Fahrenheit night in February. The setting didn’t feel pulled from the pages of Stradal’s novel, but I felt more like I was flattened, shrunk, and tucked into the pages myself like a bookmark. The red walls matched all the red plaid flannels in the room; fake firewood in a cast iron stove radiated a cozy, electric glow. Antique tea kettles and pans hung from the rafters. The diners around me spoke of their recent hip surgeries and church events. How often do you go from reading a novel to being suddenly inside it? Almost never!

From what I’d read in Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, I knew that there are traditions at supper clubs that make them supper clubs and not just restaurants. The free relish 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,” said Stradal from his landline phone in Burbank, where he lives with his family in an unreliably connected valley. “It’s always a family-owned restaurant that, quite simply, provides the best possible food for the people within 30 miles.”

The reason the novels ring so true is not just because Stradal has lived in these worlds but because he does intense research for each book—you could probably learn how to brew beer based on a few paragraphs from Lager Queen. For Saturday Night, he called a handful of current and former supper club owners to get their stories, their ups and downs, and details about what cocktails they were mixing in the 1970s (so many Harvey Wallbangers), when some of the book takes place. He even had a mixologist invent a recipe for Betty’s Lemonade, a drink in the book that’s made with whiskey, lemonade, and a splash of Bubble Up soda. 

A supper club used to be both supper and a club—and some still are. “You’d go there at 5 and leave at 11. You’re not going to get hustled out of your seat,” said Stradal. There might 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 boozy drink like a crème de menthe Grasshopper. “I really respect a place that has stayed put and kept its ambitions modest: they’ve simply tried to make the best food for the people who could afford it in that area. And, honestly, I don’t know if a restaurant has to do much more than that.” Above all, said Stradal: “Most supper clubs are the nicest restaurant in America.”  

When my relish tray arrived, it was everything I’d read and dreamed about: creamy pickled herring, a bowl of crackers to unwrap and scatter the table with plastic, crinkle-cut carrots, and bread-and-butter pickles that were pre-stabbed with a toothpick. For my main course, I had walleye sunburnt by the broiler with a lemon wedge and not much else, presented on a fish-shaped platter. As I salted the hell out of it, I thought of another description Stradal had for supper clubs that I believe applies to his books, too: “It’s the restaurant out of time but also timeless. It’s anachronistic but eternal.” 

Alex Beggs

Alex Beggs is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she has a "whole lotta loaves" punchcard at Zingerman's. She's the former senior staff writer at Bon Appétit, and has contributed to The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and others. Her cat, Roger, can't resist roast chicken.