Cookbook author Amy Thielen remembers her Ďhopefulí Minnesota homecoming

June 5, 2017 

Food Network viewers recognize her from the absorbing "Heartland Table" series, and discerning cookbook readers are more than familiar with the Minnesota author through her James Beard award-winning "The New Midwestern Table."

But for those who think they know Amy Thielen, think again.

She is rectifying that situation with an evocative and enlightening new memoir. "Give a Girl a Knife" (Clarkson Potter, $26) takes readers deep into her own urban-rural divide.

First, she illuminates the long winters she spent cooking in the New York City kitchens of top chefs David Bouley, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Then she turns to summers in the woods just outside her hometown, living in a rustic, off-the-grid house built by Aaron Spangler, her artist husband and fellow native of Park Rapids, Minn.

What a contrast: 80-hour weeks in high-pressure, peak-experience restaurant kitchens, and summers growing and preserving vegetables and fruits ó and cooking with no running water or electricity ó while slowly but surely discovering and embracing her familyís culinary roots, a branch of which is the famed Thielen Meats in Pierz, Minn.

We talked with Thielen about the military appeal of commercial kitchens, the joys of pepper-shaped tomatoes and the forgotten beauties locked within the concept of "making do."

Q: Why a memoir?

A: I was trying to figure out what kind of narrative this book would take. The "homecoming" narrative was embedded into essays in the cookbook. Writing this book really did help me figure out all the unanswered and unresolved things about coming back home. What drew me back here, so strongly? I found those answers while I was writing the book. Those issues naturally arose from that, and then I thought, "Do I dare write a memoir at 40?" Iím 42 now. Itís not an autobiography, itís not a beginning-to-end narrative. Memoirs usually concentrate on a discrete story.

Q: You wrote that "cooking saved me," but you also refer to it as "the affliction." Is there a contradiction there?

A: In those early years in New York, I was really in search of motivation. Iíve always been a procrastinator, and Iím a little bit undisciplined. Cooking is like the military, structure-wise, but at the same time itís very creative. You have to use all of your senses; theyíre on call. Itís also like the theater. No one else is going to do your part if youíre sick. The show must go on. I believed in the system and the authority and the structure of it all. I think Iím on the ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) spectrum. I have a hard time finishing things, and I need structure, and cooking solved that for me. When I started cooking, time did slow down, and I could really concentrate.

Q: One of my favorite lines in the book is when an Austrian sous chef tells you, "Good cooking is potatoes and onions." How was that meaningful for you?

A: That was such a turning point for me. It really clicked with me, because thatís the moment when I realized that food isnít stratified by class. Good taste can be anywhere, and you can make anything great, and beautiful, as long as you give it love, and attention and knowledge. Thatís when I realized that the food that I grew up with was good. I started to see a path back, a way to explore some of the things that Iíd grown up with.

Q: You wrote about the concept of "making do," that it isnít rooted in Depression-era deprivation cooking. Can you tell me about that?

A: I remember the moment when I realized that making do was a lot more beautiful than it sounded. We were living in the country, and I was surrounded by all of these good raw materials, and I was building this amazing pantry and storehouse. When youíre marooned in the woods, you make whatís on hand, and thatís beautiful and wonderful. Itís making food that tastes where you are, and itís way superior to what you can buy in the store.

Q: How did you do it, logging six-day workweeks for $500 in hot, windowless New York City kitchens?

A: I was young. I was only in my late 20s and early 30s, and it was all very exciting. Things were working out for Aaron, too, and we both just got caught up in that adrenaline. It felt very normal, but, yes, there is a part of that world that is fairly unsustainable. I also had a lot of hustle, and I didnít complain, which is why people would say, "Are there more Minnesotans we can hire?" I like to relax, but to just sit? Letís not waste time. Give me some peas to shell.

Q: Why is professional cooking such a male-dominated universe?

A: It has changed a lot. The New York City of today isnít what it was 10 or 15 years ago. But it comes down to making this decision: Would you rather have a restaurant job, or be the mother of a young child? As a parent, whether youíre a man or a woman, thatís the decision.

Q: Bacon, and your love of it, comes up a few times in the book. How do you cook it?

A: Slowly, with devotion. Itís funny: I would give packages of Thielenís bacon to friends in New York City, and of course I would describe how they should fry it. And they would all say, "Yeah, I know how to fry bacon." Did I really tell that person that? Looking back, yeah, I did.

Q: I particularly enjoyed reading about your garden. What is it with you and Opalka tomatoes?

A: Theyíre my favorites; theyíre my winners. Opalkas have a good balance of sugar and acid, and theyíre meaty and juicy. They blanch so beautifully, and they leave that upper layer of flavor thatís right beneath the skin. Eastern European tomatoes do well in Minnesota. Itís the climate. Iím always looking for tomatoes that can be grown in Siberia.

Q: The book doesnít include your cookbook, or TV show. It ends several years before, outside your Park Rapids supermarket of choice. Why?

A: I felt that people already know that story. But I also really liked where the book ends. I wrote that part first. Itís that first winter when weíre back, and Iím pushing Hank (her now 10-year-old son) across a frozen grocery store parking lot. I felt really hopeful about my life, and it doesnít make sense that I would be hopeful, because itís a bleak scene. But I felt hope in the face of that bleak scene. It felt like moving back was the right thing to do, and that moment just stuck with me. I knew it was the end of the book. I started the book in fine-dining New York City kitchens, and I ended in the J&B Foods parking lot.




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