Midwest Foodie

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CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Articles

Mac Today talked with busy cookbook author/TV host Amy Thielen on a grey fall afternoon, just after she’d spoken at Macalester for Common Good Books.

Tell us about your TV show.

It’s called Heartland Table and all six episodes have already aired on the Food Network. They put me right after Pioneer Woman on Saturday mornings, which is good because she has lots of viewers. You can also find it on iTunes.

How did the show come about?

Well, the book came first—it was three years in the making, whereas the TV show only took nine months. To be honest, the show was more of a surprise. My book was in the pipeline at Random House when they were seeking TV and film properties. It was filmed right in my house so we could be close to my gardens. Those six shows took 20 people more than a dozen 14-hour days. It was exhausting. The cold spring last year threw us, too: at one point I couldn’t find any local freshly dug potatoes, so I had to call a farmers market in Bloomington, Indiana (where my sister lives), and have them send me some still in a box of dirt. The raw materials really matter!

How did you choose your recipes?

I wanted them to be Midwestern but more creative, modern, and with more juice. I wanted to tap into that collective food memory we all have. Food has a way of striking a chord; it elicits an emotional response. That’s what Midwestern chefs are trying to do when they put a fancy Sloppy Joe on the menu—it makes people remember home through a better rendition of something familiar. It has the power to summon common experience. I also wanted the recipes to be doable—I don’t think Midwestern food should be intimidating. I test them repeatedly, and if I can get rid of a step that involves dirtying another piece of equipment, I’ll do it. And I make sure I can source all the ingredients in my closest town, Park Rapids, Minnesota.

When did you start cooking?

Back in my Mac days, I often procrastinated by cooking. I was an English major and instead of writing a paper I’d drive down to University Avenue to the Thai and Vietnamese markets, load up on food, then cook a dinner party for 10 friends. Or I’d be up in the middle of the night making squash soup. I was always cooking so I didn’t have to write—and now I have to do both. I was also influenced by a sociology class in which I produced my own cookbook. I put everything into that book—I was obsessive!

What’s your next book?

My next book is more narrative; it’s stories about food. My publishers wanted a food memoir but I have resisted the chronological thing.

How did you start writing about food?

I wrote for The Rake [a now defunct Twin Cities monthly] and the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune, where the editor gave me long leash to write whatever I wanted. I also wrote a weekly column for my hometown newspaper, The Park Rapids Enterprise, which is where I really found my voice and started to figure out what I wanted to say about Midwestern food.

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

by Lee Svitak Dean
photos by Jennifer May

Northern Minnesotan Amy Thielen '97 is the Food Network's latest star.

At first glance, Amy Thielen '97 doesn’t look like a Food Network star. There are no plunging necklines or bleached hair. No wild-andcrazy shtick from this quiet young woman with the engaging laugh, who calls north-central Minnesota home.

She does, however, look a bit like the Midwest, homespun and friendly, with a gentle smile, a little self-conscious about all the fuss that’s swirling around her as she debuted on Heartland Table on the Food Network. The program’s six episodes were shot in her kitchen in the log cabin she shares with her 6-year-old son, Hank, and husband, Aaron. It’s a rustic spot, built on 150 acres outside Two Inlets, a town so small it’s unincorporated.

Pines line the road to the cabin. A massive kitchen garden extends down to a creek, where wild rice grows. Deer, turkeys, grouse and the occasional raccoon hide in the surrounding woods. Berries and mushrooms are there for the picking, though beware of bears—they may be out there, too.

This is home, where Thielen began her search for the roots of Midwestern cooking.

If you don’t know her name, you’re not alone. Even the Wall Street Journal recently referred to her as a “little-known chef” in its description of the upcoming show. Though that may be the case on the national scene, it won’t be for long.

Thielen, 38, grew up in Park Rapids, Minn., a town of 3,000 near the headwaters of the Mississippi, 20 miles from where she lives today. From her earliest days, food has been front and center for Thielen. “I always had good food at my house. We often had a neighbor eating with us. And my mother always talked about food with us. ‘What are you hungry for?’ she would ask in the morning,” says Thielen. “I remember sometimes going to the store twice a day. We lived right in town. She was a good cook, and was consumed by it.

“My grandmother Dion was an excellent cook as well, known for her baking, like many Midwestern women of that generation. She wasn’t afraid to tell anyone that she was good, either. She was self-promotional before it was in.”

Thielen left the North Woods to earn a degree in English from Macalester. Then it was back to the woods, this time with Aaron, an artist, who had built a rustic cabin. They spent several summers there, living without electricity or running water for six months at a time—gardening season for Thielen. Three days a week she worked the breakfast shift at a German-American diner in Park Rapids, frying schnitzels and hash browns, basting eggs and toasting bread. “It was a great education. I loved the physical labor. I liked that kind of work,” Thielen says. “In addition to deep-frying fish patties, the owner also made a lot of homemade stuff. I learned to work fast. I learned the culture behind the scenes in restaurants, and I was hooked.”

sweet-and-sour plums in syrupOff-duty, she settled into the workload of “simple” living: hauling wood, pumping water and preparing garden-fresh food on a 1940s propane-fired Roper stove. Winter months were spent in Minneapolis, until the year they headed to New York City, where Thielen enrolled in culinary school. Soon she found a spot in the kitchen at Danube, an Austrian restaurant run by chef David Bouley.

That was the beginning of seven years working in the finest of New York restaurants, where Thielen learned the culinary techniques of top chefs Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Shea Gallante and their staffs. She may have been a long way from Bologna Days in Pierz, Minn., where her parents grew up, but she was in her element, soaking up the skills and understanding of contemporary cooking.

In 2008, a year after their son was born, Thielen and her husband moved back to the cabin, where they added electricity and water. While Aaron worked on his art, Thielen began writing about the Midwestern food she loved and the people who created it. Her articles made the pages of Saveur and Men’s Journal, as well as the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune. Her Midwestern focus led to a two-book contract with Clarkson Potter, and a collection of stories from the Star Tribune’s Taste section earned her a James Beard award in 2011. Her first cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, was released in September. The TV show serves as a kind of companion, each show focusing on a recipe or two from the book.

It’s a delightful book, full of stories about growing up in a rural community, with recipes for the home cook who is looking for solid Midwestern fare with a contemporary edge (think fried corn, tomato carpaccio with horseradish ice, rosemary-infused brown butter chicken breasts), as well as recipes more familiar to the rural cook who knows fish and game (bear stew, eelpout almondine, sturgeon with a wild rice crust). Throughout the recipes, Thielen uses her own local markets and backyard garden as a guidepost for ingredients.

There are cooking “projects” for the curious: homemade butter and cottage cheese, pickles of all sorts, ketchup and make-your-own braunschweiger and liqueurs, among them, as well as instructions for preparing salt pork and sauerkraut.

The book’s recipes fall into four types, including classics that have a Midwestern feel, such as chicken pot pie or hot dishes, that she has tweaked. “I made the best rendition I could and gave it a modern twist,” she says. Family recipes find a spot in her book, too: potato doughnuts and her grandmother’s thick white farmhouse bread.

There are dishes she calls hyper-regional that reflect a very specific place, such as chislic from South Dakota (fried cubes of lamb) and Nebraska runza (a meat-filled bun).

And then there are her own creations. “Some things I invented out of what I consider to be regional ingredients; these are more modern. It’s me cooking out of my garden,” she says. “I tend to get creative with my vegetables because I have so many of them.” She has no illusion that this is a definitive body of regional recipes. “This is really just a beginning because there’s so much more to Midwestern cooking.”

As for Bologna Days: It’s not an annual event, but a weekly celebration that takes place over the lunch hour in two adjacent northern Minnesota towns—Pierz and Genola. “It’s a way to get hot ring-bologna into you, fresh from the smoker, only a few minutes old,” she says. That’s when the sausage is magic.

While Thielen was at work on her book, Random House Television got into the business of acquiring TV projects, and they landed on hers. So did Lidia Bastianich, the Italian cook on PBS, who saw an early version of Thielen’s book and joined with Random House to produce the Food Network show. “Once I read her book, I understood she is authentic, and a true professional in her approach to ingredients and food. Once I met her, I knew she had the personality for television, as well,” writes Bastianich by email from Italy.

runza, meat filled bun

“It’s refreshing to see someone address the food of the Midwest with such passion andunderstanding. She loves the Midwest and wants to share it 

with others,” says Bastianich. “Amy is a curious and quick learner who took her training and knowledge from her experience as a chef to dive into her roots.”

For Thielen, it was a collaboration that left her breathless. “It blew my mind to have Lidia standing in my kitchen. It’s all about the food with her. And she is so nice—as if your own grandmother was a legend. She was coaching me through the process,” says Thielen.

Production for the television show took place over two weeks. The first five days were spent driving around Midwestern states to capture film that features Thielen with food producers, people she and Aaron had met over the years on car trips. The rest of the time was spent at her cabin kitchen, which was turned into a film set. Even Aaron got into the act, writing and performing a song for the show’s intro.

“Coming home to Minnesota [from New York], I realized that the food we had at home is really great. After working in fine kitchens, my breakthrough moment was realizing that any good product can be made into something good,” says Thielen. “If you eat a fresh potato, it’s a great experience. I don’t have to change anything.”

LEE SVITAK DEAN Reprinted with permission from the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune (Sept. 12, 2013)

PUBLISHED: 01/31/2014