MAY 20, 2017
IF I’VE GOTTEN FAT — as plump as a November turkey — I can safely blame Amy Thielen’s new memoir, Give a Girl a Knife. The book chronicles the Food Network star’s ascent through the storied kitchens of New York City’s fine dining restaurants (Daniel Boulud’s db bistro moderne, David Bouley’s Bouley, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s now-shuttered Chinese restaurant 66, among others). But it also delineates her Minnesota upbringing and the dishes and ingredients she was reared on and has since returned to: “chokecherries would come on the branch in early August and sugar would erase their woolly mouthfeel”; “the wild rice growing on the creek — right in our front yard —would ripen around the time that summer came to a close.” The story line is cinematic, yes, but also highly caloric. I found myself putting it down only to run into my kitchen and attempt to cobble together, in some part, some of the dishes she describes, especially the ones her mother made — the “chicken marsala with mushrooms and spaetzle in brown butter; grilled pork chops served still a little pink in the middle and cloaked with horseradish sour cream.” And like her mother — who set two sticks into the butter dish every morning and used them entirely by nightfall — I didn’t skimp on fat. (The word “butter” appears 99 times in the book. You’ve been warned.)
Plenty of overworked New Yorkers dream about chucking it all and moving to the backwoods — but Thielen moves to New York from the backwoods. She begins her book by describing her life in a cabin without electricity or running water, in Minnesota’s North Country, built by her boyfriend (now husband), the sculptor Aaron Spangler. “At the house in the woods, we pumped water by hand from our own sand point well and hauled it into the kitchen in plastic jugs,” she writes. Their housekeeping strategies might have been published in Carla Emery’s 1994 Encyclopedia of Country Living, if it were written in the 19th century:
We kept our meat cold on blocks of ice, lit oil lamps for light when the sun went down, and showered outside in the breeze. On the hill jutting out into a swollen creek, home to a crew of honking swans and a natural stand of wild rice and a community of honking swans that separated us from neighbors for miles, we basically lived on an island of the 1880s within a sea of the late 1990s.
Thielen knew — certainly every time she crawled away to the outhouse, if not as she was lighting their propane-powered, circa 1940 Roper stove — that the lifestyle she was leading was precarious. “I liked to think of it as our own private epoch, but looking back, I’d say we pretty much lived in our heads.”
Why would someone raised in total suburban comfort put up with all that? It wasn’t solely for love of Spangler. Thielen writes that she had “effectively driven myself two generations back in time to find the only things that my buttery, voluptuous, well-fed Midwestern childhood had lacked: baby greens and deprivation.” As her boyfriend carved sculptures out of cast-off wood from the local sawmill, she dove into antique recipe books and journals of pioneer homesteading women she’d found in the historical records of Becker County. She writes:
I wanted to cook like my Midwestern great-grandma had, with the feeling of scantness at my back. I wanted to pick a bowl of peas in the afternoon and bathe them in butter a few hours later to fully capture their fleeting sweetness. If I had refrigerated them (if I’d had refrigeration), their sugars would begin to turn to starch, like any old grocery store pea. My cooking bug, which had begun innocently enough as a way to stave off the agony of writing papers throughout my college years, was growing into a serious habit. Or as Aaron described his own art practice: It was becoming an affliction.
Born and bred just 25 minutes away in the comparatively booming town of Park Rapids — population 3,903 — food was one salve against the winter cold (in 2016, the coldest January day in Park Rapids bottomed out at negative 30), and the summer cold too:
On cold evenings, not unheard of even at the height of a Minnesota summer, we made what we called pudgie pies for dinner right in the open hearth, layering white bread and ham and cheese into the pie iron, then carefully cracking an egg in the middle before locking the two sides together and holding the iron in the fire to cook it all into a buttery, turtle-shaped pie.
As a food-obsessive who grew up in Portland, Oregon, I never made more over the fire than s’mores and Jiffy Pop. What Thielen encountered even in childhood was sophisticated cooking, and it likely grew her into the chef she is today. Back to those pudgie pies: “For this totally blind cooking process, the pudgie-pie cook had to rely on her instincts,” she writes. “I liked my bread almost burned and my yolk soft, so I bravely held my iron down in the orange-and-silver coals and pulled it out only when tiny droplets of butter and melted cheese liquid dripped from iron.”
And when she explains about moving to New York with Spangler to pursue cooking and art, respectively, you can’t help but root for them. She’s got as much mettle as her homesteading ancestors did moving to Minnesota in the first place, talking her way into an internship by strolling into jackets-required restaurant Bouley and asking to speak with the chef. Once she had the job, she worked her ass off. “I was moving — physically moving — and working far harder than I’d ever worked before,” she tells us:
Eighty-hour weeks, and the hours flew by. By the time I’d finished my first month interning in a real kitchen in Manhattan, I felt like I had finally activated the entirety of my DNA. Maybe I was a fair mixture of my parents after all: the workaholic businessman dad meets the sauce-simmering, stove-bound mom.
Her parents approved of her new life, but rising through a star-studded scene wasn’t encouraged by her hometown. Of Park Rapids, she says:
The people were tough. The “norm” was good enough. The weather, along with some leftover prairie practicality from the homesteading era, colluded to place bets against the dreamers.
Still, one could argue that growing up in a place that “bets against the dreamers” makes you dream even harder, and dream she did, though with feet firmly planted. Thielen’s book proves that making it in the seemingly glamorous food world is not always glamorous. She worked 13-hour days, six-day weeks at one restaurant, and dodged roaches “running like hoodlums” at another. And though this account is no Sweetbitter — Stephanie Danler’s 2016 novel about coming-of-age in New York restaurants — Thielen does expose some of the biting sexism women experience in restaurant kitchens. Such as the jokes (a colleague dangling an entire horseradish root from his fly, for example) and the delegation of labor (“for some reason, you rarely saw chefs assign women to cook the main protein, even if that woman was a sous chef. Sometimes the fish, but never the meat.”)
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics’s survey from 2016, only 21.4 percent of chefs and head cooks are female, while a majority — 58.2 percent — of the lower strata of “food preparation workers” are. Seventy percent of waitstaff are female, and a whopping 80.8 percent of hosts. For anyone who is tracking the gender of “star chefs” with actual restaurants, the Batali’s and the Colicchio’s, the figure of female chefs (21.4 percent) should surprise no one, even if it nears the proportion of female clergy (17.6 percent).
Thielen doesn’t let the numbers get her down, even as the industry’s inherent sexism — from both men and women — garnishes her wages. Hired to be a sous chef at a restaurant in Tribeca, she effectively gets demoted, for no reason. “When I met with Catherine (not her real name) in management she dropped my title to junior sous,” she writes, “reducing my modest salary even more and marking yet another time that the women were meaner than the men.”
But what Thielen did next — nothing — was, I’d wager, more typical of women than men, when they are wronged. For her part, Thielen seems to simply shrug it off: “At this point, I had to laugh. Sexism was so predictable.” I can’t help wishing she’d summoned up a little of that homesteader grit and said something.
Still, she learns a lot in these kitchens, knowledge that I devoured, too, for my own personal use. To resuscitate tired shrimp, the expat cooks at 66 ran water over them for hours. “The Chinese dishes held clues to a past rooted in deprivation and resourcefulness,” Thielen notes. “Like a Midwestern farmhouse cook and her April sack of storage carrots, they could wring sauce from stones.” She discovers that when cooking, “everything takes five minutes,” from caramelizing onions to making red wine syrup. Much earlier, she acquired other skills. The book hopscotches back and forth between New York and Minnesota, where she lives today, having returned there with her husband and son. In one of my favorite scenes, she recalls the exact moment her mother, who divorced her father when Thielen was in high school, taught her how to use a paring knife. She was in fifth grade:
I took the knife — an old one whose short blade had been sharpened over the years into the shape of a bird’s beak — and tried to copy the way she sliced apples for the pandowdy for the church bake sale. Never once did she tell me to be careful. “Cut it like this” is what she said … steering the apple quarter this way and that, cutting quickly. Shiff shiff shiff, pyramid-shaped pieces fell into the bowl.
So early on, Thielen understood the value of apprenticeship. About her mother, she tells us, “She worked from memory, with a knowledge that was housed in her hands. It was kind of like watching a veteran carpenter build a house.”
I love that Thielen brings respect to Midwestern regional dishes, largely ignored on the coasts. (Danny Meyer has made Southern classics haute at Manhattan’s Blue Smoke, and Eater lists 21 fancy Maine lobster rolls to try in Los Angeles, but rare is the East or West Coast chef willing to resurrect the hotdish.) In my salad days as a magazine editor, I recall a former snob-in-chief mercilessly cackling and eye-rolling over the very idea of hotdishes, as if a sauerkraut casserole were equivalent to eating Spam from the can. It’s not. My mother was raised in Litchfield, Minnesota, and you can knock lutefisk all you want, but you can’t taste a homemade Special K bar (peanut butter, chocolate, and butterscotch are key ingredients) without eating two or 10 more. This is a part of the country that gets so cold that Thielen and Spangler once celebrated the temperature’s rise to zero by driving with the car windows open, so its foodstuffs are nothing if not comforting. And the way Thielen dissects their history? It’s the story of immigration in Minnesota itself. Even their coffee cake recipes are a tell, defining who they are and what they like:
We mixed-European-breed Midwestern mongrels are always outed by our coffee cake. Sour cream — probably Polish. Cardamom with icing — had to be from some part of Scandinavia. Our poppy-seed streusel pointed us to origins somewhere east of Germany. Between the poppy seeds and the stiff lace-edged potato pancakes and the fortune telling, my best guess was that we hailed from a place somewhere between old Transylvania and the hometown of the Brothers Grimm.
Which brings me to my one complaint about this book: I wish Thielen had studded it with recipes, or perhaps stocked them at the end in an extra chapter, like a digestif. As is, the book served to whet my tongue (as well as my knives) — now, if I can just find somebody to show me how to make that cardamom coffee cake.