"Butter is kind of like the currency of the Midwest," Amy Thielen muses as she unwraps and slices up a roll of that sunshine yellow money, fresh from a creamery in Westby, Wisconsin. She's browning about a third of it in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, infusing the liquid with woody bits of rosemary and grilled cipollini onions before pouring it over a bowl of boiled thin-skinned new potatoes from her garden.
The remnants of that block will be cut into cubes, chilled, and blended by hand into flour for a cream-brushed "sparkle crust" blueberry pie. She'll have to break into her reserve stash to make the final dish of the day: a pile of roughly chopped collard greens fried in Ethiopian-spiced butter and crowned with dollops of fresh ricotta cheese. Sound like a full day's work? It would be for any dedicated home cook, but lately that phrase has a more resonant meaning for Thielen. All this butter slicing, dicing, and spicing is taking place on the premiere episode of her Food Network show, Heartland Table, which is filmed in Thielen's actual kitchen at her home in Two Inlets, Minnesota.
Since leaving the cutthroat world of Manhattan restaurants, including venerated spots like Danube, Bouley, and Gallante, the prodigal daughter has returned to her roots and subsequently become an ambassador of modern Midwestern cuisine. Her show was developed somewhat in conjunction with her stunning, comprehensive cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, which not only catalogs Thielen's method of using beet juice to dye pickled eggs a brilliant pink and reveals that cracker meal is the dredging secret behind perfect fried chicken, but also does an outstanding job of communicating our middle American ethos without resorting to schmaltz or corniness. It's great news for Thielen that these values, along with things like pickling, canning, and baking, seem to be having a moment in the cultural limelight, but Thielen says that even without the current hipster affection for all things homey and handmade, this is the book she would have always written.
"I'm thrilled that that is what's happening," says Thielen, referring to the desire to know your makers, grow your own, and do things slowly. "I'm proud to be part of that. But I have been imagining this book and working on these ideas for probably 15 years. When I was working with European chefs at these New York restaurants, it really started to click for me that the basis of fancy food comes from a very rustic place."
Thielen's techniques are not overly complicated, and she often works with just a few ingredients, but she has mastered the art of applying love in layers, as with the pork roast she periodically pulls out to brush with a thick coating of sugar, apple cider vinegar, and crushed peppercorns. She succinctly describes the intersection as "plain food gets particular," and attributes that philosophy largely to being raised in a house where everyone, especially the women of her family, were particularly particular.
"I think when you try to live close to the land, your daily life requires a different level of attention, and it's the eating that breaks up that routine, so the food is very important," says Thielen. "When I was growing up, the discussion of texture was constant, constant. You know 'the bread was good like this, this time, but it was better like that last time.' The detail people went into to talk about venison sausage and pie crust and balance of sugar and salt in the pickles.... I guess it gave me an appreciation for really good product."
So did growing up with an extended family that ran, and still runs, a full-service meat market. You might recognize Amy's last name if you've ever had the pleasure of visiting the original Thielen Meats in Pierz, Minnesota, or the second location in Little Falls. A cousin who runs the store, an aunt who knows the best method for frying ring bologna, and pictures of her grandmother, an expert baker, all pop up on her show from time to time, and that intimacy is a huge part of Heartland Table's charm.
"They get a kick out of it," Thielen says of her family's perception of her new life as a TV host. "I think the whole town gets a kick out of it, but then again maybe I just haven't heard any of the comments from the detractors." A soupçon of classic Midwestern humility peeks out as she says this, but truly the nearby community of Park Rapids, where Thielen spent her formative years, seems unflapped by her new stardom. "Everyone here is famous for something," says Thielen. "If anything people might give me a little ribbing, like, 'Hey, there goes the movie star,' but surprisingly little in my day-to-day life has changed since the show."
That genuine unaffectedness is a quality that famed Italian chef Lidia Bastianich, host of her own long-running cooking show on PBS and one of Thielen's show's producers, saw in Thielen immediately. Random House, which published The New Midwestern Table, actually provided the impetus for developing a series in the first place, but Thielen says that once Lidia, her daughter Tanya, and their company got involved, things gained momentum quickly. "The funny thing is we never even discussed doing the show anywhere else but at my house," says Thielen. "It seemed like all along the thing that everyone liked about the show and the book and the whole project was the Midwestern point of view. I've come to really love and appreciate the informality of the Midwest. The fact that people have parties in garages or around the fire pit means that they really are focused on the food and the company, not the candelabra."
On the show, which will air six new episodes starting this month, Thielen's style is more educational than instructive. She advocates for cooking by sense, listening to the hiss of the cast iron skillet to know when a piece of meat has properly seared off or waiting until the pan is quiet to ensure that butter has been thoroughly clarified. Through her stories and easy workshopping style, her viewers and readers are given the confidence to experiment with food, but also to trust in their ingredients.
Despite all her tips, training, and technique, Thielen says she is not necessarily out to break down stereotypes of the Midwest as a hot dish wasteland, at least not on purpose. But something about her work does so anyway. "My interest was in getting down to the real recipes and the real history. I wanted for the book especially to be a reflection of the way we eat with lots of sides and salads and stuff from the garden. I put in a lot of desserts because that is what you always find in traditional Midwestern cookbooks. I think once you really dig into all of that, you naturally break down those stereotypes."
That said, her book has a killer recipe for chicken wild rice casserole topped with crushed Ritz crackers.