Peanut Butter Bars

In my last blog, I interviewed J. Ryan Stradal, the author of the best selling novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Several recipes are featured in the book, including Pat Prager’s Peanut Butter Bars. There is a hilarious scene in the book where Pat, whose bars have won first place year after year at the county fair, enters them in the Petite Noisette baking competition in Minneapolis where, unbeknownst to Pat, all other entries are organic and locally sourced. The reaction from the other competitors and the way Pat handles the situation is priceless.

I made the Peanut Butter Bars today and served them at my novel group meeting. The ingredients are far from decadent, but the end product is exquisite, a sort of elevated Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Here is the recipe for Pat Prager’s Peanut Butter Bars:

2-1/2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbsPeanut butter bars

1 cup melted Grade A butter

1 cup peanut butter

2-1/2 cups powdered sugar

1 cup milk chocolate chips with 1 teaspoon Grade A butter (I had bittersweet chocolate chips on hand and they worked fine)

Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, peanut butter, and sugar. Pat into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Melt the chips and butter and spread them on top of the bars. Set in the refrigerator until firm. Cut into bars.

Enjoy the recipe and the book!

An Interview with J. Ryan Stradal, author of “Kitchens of the Great Midwest”

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You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy New York Times bestseller, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal. As I read, I was reminded of the book Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, with its small town feel and the fact that it revolves around a main character, Eva Thorvald. Eva appears in each chapter, sometimes the dominating character and other times hovering in the background through the eyes of others. Eva Thorvald, as an infant, is abandoned by her mother and orphaned by the death of her father. Raised by her aunt and uncle as their own child, Eva has an innate sensibility about food, eventually becoming a renowned chef. Throughout the book, we see Eva mostly through the points of view of other characters. Stradal’s great strength is in his rich character development.  The reader feels invested in these characters and wanting more at each chapter’s end.Kitchens Book Cover

When I finished reading this book, I knew I wanted to learn more about this author and his thought processes in writing such a unique novel.

Interview with J. Ryan Stradal:

Q: When I first saw the title of your book, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I thought it was a cookbook and was surprised to discover it was a novel, a bestselling novel at that. How did you decide on the title and what was your publisher’s opinion about that?

J. Ryan: I came up with the title “Kitchens of Minnesota” before I even started writing, but the first time I saved a few of the chapters in a collected Word file, I changed it to what it is now. That said, the selection of title happened very early and wasn’t done by committee or with the intervention of my editor or agent. I will likely need their help for my next book, however.

Q: What was your motivation in writing a novel focused on food and cooking? Are you a foodie? Do you enjoy cooking?

J. Ryan: Food has been a major narrative preoccupation of mine for some time. This is the first occasion where I’ve really had the excuse to center a narrative on the topic. That said, I believe it’s a book about family first—in essence, a mother-daughter story—and a food book second, at best.

I’m still improving as a chef, but I’ve been an enthusiastic end-user for a very long time. As soon as the state of Minnesota let me have a driver’s license, I was going up to the Twin Cities with my high school girlfriend Stacy to try out new and exotic cuisine. It may have been unusual for teenagers at the time, but it was what we did, at least a few nights a month. Enjoying new food is a primary motivation behind my adult travels as well. Malaysia, Iceland, and Argentina in particular have been highlights.

 Q: The reader gets to know your protagonist, Eva Thorvald as a child and teen, but we see her less as the book proceeds. Her character development seems to advance through the eyes of others. Why did you continue to move her more and more to the background just when the reader wants to get closer to her?

J. Ryan: There were a few reasons for this. I felt that it legitimized her fame and talent in the eyes of the reader – since we tend to believe what characters say about each other, and less what they say about themselves – but it also followed the arc of how her fame rendered her remote and required a greater need for privacy. In the end, when Cindy goes looking for Eva, I wanted Eva to be almost as mysterious to the reader as she was to Cindy.

Q: Do you see yourself in any of these characters?

J. Ryan: Yes, almost all of them. I’ve heard before that a writer’s first novel is about their childhood whether or not they intend it to be. Certainly I share mistakes, regrets, and tastes with many of my characters. 11-year old Eva, Will Pager, and Jordy Snelling have the highest quotient of my life and experiences in them, but none of them are too much like me.

 Q: A thread runs through your story depicting children raised by single parents because of death, divorce, or abandonment. Is this something drawn from your own experience?

J. Ryan: The idea of the “family of choice” was important to me when I set out to write this book, so I decided to portray each family I featured as some kind of non-nuclear unit. It’s also been my personal experience, yes, but also common in the lives around me.

Q: I see from your book acknowledgements that some of the recipes in the book are attributed to a Lutheran women’s cookbook. But where did you get your knowledge of upscale food preparation and ingredient sourcing?

J. Ryan: That began in college with my college girlfriend Carly’s father Tony and extended into my life in Los Angeles, particularly in the last ten years or so. My friendship with a chef named Patty Clark has been the source of much of my education and awareness. Back in Minnesota, my dad and my stepmom also turn me on to new varietals, and no people I know are more serious about tomatoes than Katie Vincent in Los Angeles and Spencer Foxworth and Kristen Kennedy in Oregon.

 Q: If you were invited to a dinner party, who would you want at your table? These could be fictional or real people. And what would be served?

J. Ryan: What I wouldn’t give for one more dinner with my mom. And I have to admit, my food requests would be pretty simple. Fish and peas.

Q: As a writer, I’m often interested in other authors’ writing processes—when, where, and how. What is your writing routine?

J. Ryan: I like to wake up and get at it first thing in the morning. If I don’t, I try to get the stuff of life and errands done before lunch, or else I go to the gym and eat lunch before starting work in the late afternoon through the evening. Sometimes I do both shifts in a day. I usually work at home but lately I’ve been taking trips of a few days or more out of town, in a place where I don’t know anyone. Recently I holed up at a winery near Paso Robles for a week. I was very lucky to get to do this kind of thing.

Q: Do you have plans for another novel?

J. Ryan: Yes, I’m about halfway through the first draft, by my estimation. It also takes place in the Midwest and so far involves a couple of the characters from Kitchens in minor ways. This could change, so don’t hold me to this. So far the two most prominent characters are Pat Prager’s mom and eldest niece, but Pat herself, at the moment, makes only a fleeting appearance.

Q: In addition to your writing, your varied background includes fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, acquisitions editor at Unnamed Press, and reality TV show producer. But I understand that you also are a volunteer for various charitable causes in the LA area. Tell me about that.

J. Ryan: I’ve been involved as a volunteer at 826LA, a nonprofit literary/educational nonprofit started by Dave Eggers, since 2005. It’s a wonderful organization, where I’ve met some of my best friends in the city, and working with the city’s student population has changed my life. I’ve done everything from free SAT guidance to basic English to creative workshops where the kids create something from scratch. Every time I sit down with them, they blow me away. My favorite grade levels to work with are fourth graders and high school seniors, but this spring I’m teaching writing to middle schoolers. I had an awful time in middle school myself so I’m extremely sympathetic to them in advance.

I believe that every writer with the ability to do so should volunteer in his or her community. It’s the best possible use of one’s free time, and it’ll really make a difference to someone from whom one-on-one time with a concerned adult is a premium. If not for the librarians and teachers at my grade school who made extra time for me, and devoted time out of their day to give me special projects, I don’t think I would’ve ever found a focus for my creativity, or believed in its potential or utility as much. I think about this every time I leave the house to drive to 826LA. I’m there for the students because I know what it means, firsthand, to have a concerned adult encourage and enable your ideas. It’s the absolute least I can do.

Thank you, J. Ryan, for generously sharing your time and your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

Easing In

Well, so far my week-long stay-cation off of work to progress with book three has been pretty successful. I’ve added some new chapters, new scenes, new scenarios. I feel good about my progress.

But it would be a misconception if you think that each morning I merely sit down at my computer and begin to write. That’s not my process. I don’t use an outline or file cards or sticky notes on the wall. I’m not always sure exactly where my story, or my main character Trudie Fine, will take me each day. I’ve been bouncing ideas around in my head since stepping away from the computer the evening before.

In fact, each day, I worry whether or not I’ll be able to have a successful writing session. Can I create the next scene, the next chapter? I worry that maybe I won’t be able to write today. Self-doubts emerge – Can I really write? Am I a writer? Is my writing any good?

To counteract these feelings, I find that I have to ease in to my writing sessions. Many writers can sit down and knock out two thousand words in no time. Not me. Once I’ve had my coffee and breakfast, I plant myself in front of computer. I first have to check and respond to my emails. Then I check Facebook, like, reply, comment. Of course, to get my mind going, I play a game or two of Solitaire, a game of Hearts.

Okay, time is ticking away. No more procrastination. No more excuses. I open my screen and it says “Chapter Twelve” with only blank space below. I go back to the scenes from the day before and read them through, make word choice changes or flesh out the scenes. I’m in the zone now. My confidence and ideas start to bloom and even surge.

And I begin to write.

Saying Goodbye

I bought it on the day John F. Kennedy, Jr. died, July 16, 1999. Not the greatest of memories to associate with the purchase of my very first brand new car, but a milestone day for me.FullSizeRender

The cars I’d previously driven had never been my choice: my father’s car, a hand-me-down from my husband or some used vehicle on its last legs, purchased at an affordable price from a friend.

What a thrill it was to finally select the exact vehicle I wanted from a car dealer, brand new off the lot. Tan-colored with a beige cloth interior, it wasn’t a fancy car. Nothing anyone would notice in a parking lot or on the road. Just an unassuming, but reliable car. Over the years, I watched as others brought their fairly new cars to their dealer or service station for repairs. My car only required oil changes every 3,000 miles, and when necessary, a new battery or tires. It never failed me on trips back and forth to work, or even on an occasional out-of-town jaunt.

During the sixteen years I owned my car, friends and relatives replaced theirs with new vehicles, some every two or three years. They spoke of GPS and Bluetooth and Sirius radio. They boasted about keyless entry and backup cameras. I never had the desire for a new car. Mine got me where I wanted to go without fanfare and without fear of a breakdown. Its body remained smooth and unblemished.

All good things, however, come to an end. The driver side visor broke loose and had to be jerry-rigged into place in a permanent down position. Mysterious wisps of smoke occasionally ascended from my steering column like a genie emerging from his bottle. When stopped in traffic or at a light, the car idled so roughly it felt like a vibrating bed in a cheap motel room. The “check engine soon” light became a constant beacon on my dashboard. It would take many hundreds of dollars to fix these problems.

The time had come for a replacement. Something new.

Driving my car for the last time, I abandoned it at the dealer. It wouldn’t have the pleasure of ownership by a new family. Instead, it would be trucked to some car auction, dismembered and sold for parts. A pretty sad legacy for a great car.

I drove off the lot in my brand new car, a lovely head-turner, graceful as a white steed in an open field.

I’m hoping for another sixteen years.

The Present

They say it’s a gift.

I agree.  At the New Year, we tend to think back over the past twelve months to our memorable moments – the good and the bad; the things we want to remember and those we want to forget.

Or, we think about the next twelve months, our future, and what we want to accomplish with a fresh start and a blank slate.

But we don’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week or next month. All we have right now is what we were given – today.  It’s ours to keep, and we can use it any way we want.  And whether I choose to lounge around in PJs (which I did this morning) or clean out the vanity cabinets in the bathroom (which we did this afternoon) or make a big pot of pasta fagoli (which I’m preparing to do now), it’s my present to use as I wish.

Wishing everyone a present each day of 2015!

Fine Dining – book 2 now available!

“Fine Dining” – Book 2 in the Trudie Fine Mystery Series – available now!

"Fine Dining" - Book 2 in the Trudie Fine Mystery Series - available now!

“Fine Dining,” book 2 in the Trudie Fine Mystery Series is now available on Amazon.com in paperback and eBook. It is also available in all other eBook formats–Nook, Apple, Sony, etc.

Included in book 2 are more wonderful recipes by DC Executive Chef James Turner.

AND MORE GREAT NEWS…

Book 1, “A Fine Fix,” is now available as an audiobook on Audible.com, Amazon.com and iTunes. And if you join Audible.com, you can get my book for free! This book was narrated by talented actress and voice over personality, Kristin James.

CoveAudioFinal-AFineFix (2)

A Full Plate

Lately, I’ve felt very frustrated as a series of circumstances out of my control have taken over my life. My goal has been to get my second book, “Fine Dining,” published in November. I’ve told everyone who’s asked that my book was coming out in November. Now, that possibility gets dimmer each day.

For one thing, working full time, 8 hours a day plus the commute, limits my writing and editing to mornings, evenings and weekends. But for the past few weeks, these small scraps of time have been eaten up by a full plate of other obligations: being available for a close relative who had major surgery, evening meetings of writer’s groups, a holiday bazaar where I hawked my first book for the whole weekend, a work event coming up one evening this week, a series of physical therapy sessions for my back and leg, not to mention the mundane everyday responsibilities of doing laundry, grocery shopping, paying bills, etc. etc. etc.

My husband, however, helped put me at ease. First of all, he suggested I might, for once, decline attendance at a meeting. The minute I sent the email to my group that I would not attend tonight, I immediately relaxed. Something was actually removed from my plate. And although Stanley works much longer hours than I do and helps with household chores, he volunteered to stay with the recovering relative for several hours this weekend to free up more of my time.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I realize how full my plate is–but in a good way. I am thankful for a loving and caring husband who lends me a hand whenever he can; I am thankful for the wonderful recovery my relative is having; I am thankful for the books I sold at the holiday bazaar and the people who bought them; I am thankful for my writer’s groups where I can strive to hone my skills; I am thankful that I have a good job to go to every day with people I like working with; and I am thankful that my second book in my mystery series, “Fine Dining,” WILL be coming out very soon. Possibly November, but more likely December.

Pumped Up to Publish

Getting ready to publish “Fine Dining,” the second book in The Trudie Fine Mystery Series is keeping me busy. I’m beginning to get feedback from my beta readers and seeing that I have a few scene changes and tweaks to work out.  Here I thought I had finished the book.

James Turner, executive chef at Blue 44 Restaurant in DC, has again agreed to contribute his talents to my book and has sent me six wonderful recipes to include in the back. I spent an eternity in the grocery store – well, actually  two grocery stores — buying all the necessary ingredients to test the recipes. Of course, James wants me to try them out, and as I’ve followed the recipe instructions I’ve been able to ask him questions like, “Should the gumbo simmer covered or uncovered?” or “How much stock do I use for the mushroom risotto?” So far, so good. The biscuits and the gumbo have been amazing! Only four more recipes to try.

Of course, even when you finish a book, there are many other details to attend to like the copyright page, the dedication, the acknowledgment page and that all-important back cover with just the right description to entice the reader to open the book. I’ve also solicited other authors for quotes that I can add to the back cover.

This is a feverish time, trying to get all the ingredients chopped and diced to blend them together into a savory and satisfying book. I’m thrilled with this dish and can’t wait to serve it to you.

O is for Overwhelmed

I’m sitting amidst years and years of a combination of memorabilia and junk thrown from the two drawers of my bedside table. I’m beginning to get one of my optical migraines, as my ophthalmologist calls them, where a kaleidoscope fans its way across my vision. I get these sporadically when I am stressed.

Today, I am stressed. Yes, I’ve thrown everything out of these drawers because I’m looking for a book: a large print paperback book of “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville. At least I think it was “Billy Budd.” I’ve already frantically searched the book shelves in the office, some two and three deep with books, all the while loudly vocalizing my frustration. I’m trying to find this book, that I know I have, to check the size of the print since I’m going to have my book published in large print.

I should be writing today instead of searching for this book. I should be preparing for an event tonight where I’ll be promoting my book.

So now I find myself on the floor surrounded by years of stuff: several issues of “Byline” magazine from 1995, four or five blank writer’s journals, a bag of about a dozen imprinted yarmulkes from my son’s Bar Mitzvah (Matt is 37 now); the sorority composite photos from my freshman and sophomore years in Delta Phi Epsilon at the University of Maryland; several bookmarks, pens, pencils and assorted paper; a spool of white thread and a spool of black thread with a needle stuck into each; an in-depth Horoscope that my friend Alma did for a writer’s retreat—evidently, my sun is in Cancer and my moon is in Libra; three completed Acrostic puzzle books and one New York Times Acrostic puzzle book, uncompleted; brochures from past forays into Jazzercise and Curves; instructions from the Cancer society on breast self-examination; books on various types of dieting; greeting cards from my kids that I couldn’t bear to part with; etc. etc. etc.

To top it all off are three wrinkled sheets of paper from a professional organizer I once listened to at a meeting. The title: “Organizing Exercises for Your Master Bedroom.”

Hah! I straighten out my stiff joints as I rise to my feet. I take two Ibuprofen (my migraines actually have minimal pain) and lay down for a few minutes. Stan brings up a box from the basement for me to sort out some of the books on the office shelves. (Men prefer to solve problems rather than listen to them). I’ll check online to see if my book should be 16 or 18 point font. I’ll try to get some writing done this afternoon. I’ll organize the mess of stuff I’ve thrown out of my drawers.

After all, I’ve been meaning to clean out those drawers for…ever!