Photo courtesy of J Ryan Stradal Facebook page
J. Ryan Stradal has a confession to make. The author, whose 2015 New York Times-bestselling novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest centers around Minnesotan cuisine, was not always an expert on Midwestern delicacies.
“When I was a kid, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know the difference between a Pronto Pup and a corn dog,” Stradal says. “I liked either of them, slathered in mustard.”
Years later, Stradal now understands and appreciates the uniqueness of Minnesota’s State Fair foods. The Los Angeles-based writer, who grew up in Hastings, says that the Minnesotan food and culture he was raised on has influenced his writing today. Stradal’s debut novel tells the story of Eva Thorvald, a genius chef whose impeccable palate is shaped by growing up in the region.
“One of the things I enjoy about the new State Fair food every year is how assertively most of it is grounded in specifically Minnesotan ingredients and traditions,” says Stradal. “I tried to do the same thing in Kitchens of the Great Midwest, in intentionally grounding the story among some of the culinary specialties of my home region.”
A lifelong fairgoer, Stradal has many of his own State Fair traditions. While Stradal calls corn dogs “the Federalist Papers of all stick-based cuisine,” the author said that his go-to fair item is 1919 Classic American Draft Root Beer. This year, he is looking forward to trying the new Minnesota Corn Dog and the new SPAM products. “We used to play hockey with cans of SPAM in the halls of Hastings Senior High and the loser had to eat it. Now it’s served in a sushi roll,” says Stradal.
While he was a “sucker” for the Giant Slide as a child, Stradal now rides the fair’s biggest attractions for reasons other than sheer thrills. “The last few years I’ve gone, I’ve made a point of taking the SkyGlider, mostly to mentally catalog the compelling stuff that ends up on the roofs of the buildings below,” says Stradal.
Unfortunately, not all of Stradal’s Fair memories are positive, as the author experienced every child’s worst State Fair nightmare: getting lost. Stradal remembers getting separated from his mother at a snake exhibit when he was four or five years old.
“I somehow had the good sense to find a police officer and ask him for help, but when he asked me for a description of my mother, the best I could do was ‘She’s a lady and has blue pants,’” Stradal recalls. “With those precise search parameters, it’s no surprise he found her in minutes.”
Despite this traumatizing experience, the State Fair still brings Stradal back home come the end of summer. Stradal said that he is looking forward to hopefully making it to Minnesota in time for this year’s Great Minnesota Get-Together.
“Minnesota sure isn’t trying to imitate any other state’s fair, and that kind of distinction and pride incites massive participation,” says Stradal. “It’s satisfying to know that you can be a part of it even by just standing on a patch of brown grass and eating fried cheese.”