MSPMAG: J. Ryan Stradal will be the first to tell you he’s not trying to write the quintessential Minnesotan novel, but he may have done so anyway.
The Hastings-raised, L.A.-based novelist’s latest book, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club (out April 18 from Penguin Random House) is a love letter to Minnesota’s food and food culture as well as its people—from Twin Citians passionate about their community to northern Minnesotans struggling to balance keeping their towns small and local while doing what it takes to make those beloved towns thrive.
“Growing up as a reader in Minnesota, I was hungry for books that reflected the environment I knew and grew up in, and I didn’t see a lot of them,” Stradal says. “And even though there are quite a few Minnesota authors now—and some really great ones—I still wanted to enter that conversation and write about the people I knew growing up and what they meant to me. Minnesota made me who I am, and I’m not done unpacking that.”
The book is third in Stradal’s repertoire, and third about Minnesota and the Midwest. His previous novels, Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota, also celebrate hardworking, funny, smart Midwesterners without making our not-flyover country feel like a parody of itself. In Saturday Night, like his other books, Minnesota is not the enemy, or something to escape—it’s something to cherish and revel in, something complicated and often painful and yet easy to love—just as us locals know it.
Saturday Night, spanning across nearly a century, follows a family and their (usually) beloved restaurant, the Lakeside Supper Club, throughout generations of owners and guests, from unlikely 1930s couple Betty and Floyd to reluctant, spirited Florence to loyal, grief-stricken Mariel, who feels the club in her bones until she finally returns to it.
These women—all of them sharp, brilliant, and complex as they wrestle with family legacy and love against individualism and growth—are the heart of the novel, and in many ways reflect the Minnesota women that raised the author himself.
“I think about my mom every time I sit down to write,” Stradal says. “She passed away in 2005, about a year before I published my first short story. And I consciously put her in my books as a means of communicating with her and keeping her alive. But the world around her is also populated with people like my aunt Connie, and grandmother Doris, and my mom’s friends, and I think about telling their stories. I want to capture the world my mom inhabited, and the people in that world.”
But the club itself, as it changes from simply one of many like it in fictional Bear Jaw, Minnesota, during the heyday of supper clubs, to its sole but beloved survivor, to a near relic of the past that must change with its community to live on in a new way, is as much a character as the people are. It, too, is complex and living and breathing, with its own personality and challenges.
And whether or not that was a conscious decision by Stradal, his own love and respect of the supper clubs he grew up with—and the ones he learned about in his extensive research for the book, talking to chefs and supper club owners and Native food experts across the region, from JD Fratzke to Sean Sherman and beyond—shines through on the pages.
“I grew up a huge fan of supper clubs,” Stradal says, noting he worked as a janitor at the now-demolished Steamboat Inn in Prescott, Wisconsin, as a teenager. “But I find it can be hard to explain to people who didn’t grow up there just what the appeal is. And so in writing this book I really wanted to capture my impression of them and the people who own, manage, and work in them.”
In all honesty, I knew I couldn’t be an unbiased reader regarding a book about supper clubs. Like Betty and Florence and Mariel, and like Stradal himself, they’re engrained into my DNA. I grew up in the woods of northern Wisconsin, plopping down in tacky-to-the-touch red supper club chairs with my grandparents. The grownups drank brandy old fashioneds and the kids called dibs on various sections of the free relish tray before Friday night fish fry. (“Where else does that happen?” Stradal asks about the famous supper club relish tray. “Nowhere!”)
And I, like Stradal, spent my teen years and college summers cleaning, waitressing, and bartending at a host of family-owned restaurants—the kind of places, like the Lakeside, where the bartender would start prepping a regular’s drink without a word as soon as they walked in. The kind of places that genuinely cared about you, and missed you when you left. The kind of places that weren’t always there when you came back.
I cracked the spine of Saturday Night excited and yet apprehensive, protective—and instantly fell in love. After all, it’s a love story in itself: a bittersweet one about the evolution of food and family and our state. And while there may not, may never, be exactly a quintessential Minnesota novel, this one comes close, and is not to be missed.
Find J. Ryan Stradal at a host of Midwest book events, including a conversation with Lorna Landvik at the Hook and Ladder on April 25th, on his website.