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."
for those who think they know Amy Thielen, think again.
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
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
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.
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
Why a memoir?
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.
You wrote that "cooking saved me," but you
also refer to it as "the affliction." Is there
a contradiction there?
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.
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?
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.
You wrote about the concept of "making do,"
that it isnít rooted in Depression-era deprivation
cooking. Can you tell me about that?
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
How did you do it, logging six-day workweeks for $500 in
hot, windowless New York City kitchens?
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.
Why is professional cooking such a male-dominated
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
Bacon, and your love of it, comes up a few times in the
book. How do you cook it?
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.
I particularly enjoyed reading about your garden. What
is it with you and Opalka tomatoes?
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.
The book doesnít include your cookbook, or TV show. It
ends several years before, outside your Park Rapids
supermarket of choice. Why?
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.