Amy Thielen has been a superhero in my mind since she released her cookbook The New Midwestern Table in 2013.
In it, she accomplished what sometimes seems like the impossible: legitimizing Minnesota cooking within the canon of regional cuisine.
What is Minnesota cooking, anyway? The chef and food writer answers that sometimes-difficult question with as much style and intellectualism as anyone has before or since. In that book, and in her new memoir Give a Girl a Knife (out May 17), Thielen manages to tease apart the puzzle of the Midwestern kitchen -- eloquently, lightheartedly, genuinely.
Minnesotans tend toward self-effacement that can verge on paralysis. We truck along, work hard, indulge in the full gamut of human endeavor, and do little in the way of self-reflection or pause to accept accolades, for goodness' sakes.
Thielen knows a thing or two about hard work, having spent nearly a decade of winters working in high-end New York City restaurant kitchens as a line cook, then in the warm-weather months living off the grid in a rural Minnesota log cabin she and her husband built by hand.
They lived seasonally this way until she gave birth to their son, but not until taking one last season in New York, heavily pregnant, at the professional stoves.
The book weaves a tale of a young rural Minnesota-born couple who choose Minnesota over all other places, making some extreme but exciting sacrifices to defend and hold their dream of a "living off the land" existence in the north woods.
There, Thielen and her husband, Aaron Spangler, began growing their own food, hauling water from a well that they built themselves, and devoting entire days to the endeavor of three square meals for their tiny family in a tiny kitchen with no running water.
It’s where Thielen really, truly learned to cook and to honor the root of why she wanted to cook in the first place.
Her writing is quietly lovely, Minnesotan through and through, with little showboating but respectable doses of confident stoicism. In certain passages, a Minnesotan can all but place herself in Thielen’s very shoes:
“I see myself waiting for the bus with my brothers and the neighborhood kids, standing on a beaten-down pad of glittering snow and sugar, wearing thin canvas shoes. The hair nearest to my head is still damp, my bangs are curled into a frothing surf, and the cold finds the moisture at my scalp. The air is sharp and crystalline, minty. The winter light comes at us from every direction, refracted in diamond cut every place it lands, until it appears that we are the lone humans standing in a white landscape and all of the world’s spotlights are trained right on us, a stiff clump of kids in the middle of nowhere.”
Who among us has not experienced that particular bus stop experience, the cold so keen it’s “minty"?And still, we cull beauty out of it because, well, what choice do we have?
More important, Thielen is an astute food writer, and her countrymen and women will recognize themselves acutely in the pages when she’s tasting the things of home:
“Just like the fermented pickles I remember from childhood, where the tartness shot straight to my spine and plucked my nerves like guitar strings, where it played me. I remember my mom watching me clink my fork around the cloudy brine in the jar of fermented pickles, and not finding any, tip up the jar for a shot of the fizzy juice instead. The acidity shook through my body like a seizure, and when I came up for air she laughed and gave me a knowing smile. Good? The taste fairy had chosen rightly. I was no sweet tooth.”
The best thing about Thielen’s writing is that she never tries to sugarcoat what we have here, and what we haven’t. The true lover of Minnesota and Minnesota cooking has to embrace the depth of our seasons, and look for the impossible-to-find diamonds in the extreme rough.
It takes her half a lifetime, but she concludes her journey not with beautiful tangles of freshly gathered snap peas, or in the French technique she gathered under some of the world’s great chefs. Instead, it’s in the cooking wisdom that her own mother knew: how to make a good meal in winter with groceries gathered at the local hometown big-box grocery store.
After overthinking it for too long, she throws a head of lime-green plastic-wrapped celery into her cart, along with a brick of ground beef.
“. . . I can almost hear a crack of lightning sounding in the meat aisle as I am promptly returned back to earth.”
Thielen’s earthiness is the thing that makes her one of our very own, and what makes us recognize ourselves. She makes no apology for celery and ground beef, but instead knows deep down into her toes the singular beauty that can come from them with the right amounts of effort and embrace.
Give a Girl a Knife will be available May 16 wherever fine books are sold.