On the pulse of ‘Midwesternness’: Food Network host visits Fargo, shares her food philosophy
By Anna Larson / The Forum
FARGO - Amy Thielen bought the green bowl on the cover of “The New Midwestern Table” at a garage sale.
The chef, cookbook author and Food Network host of “Heartland Table” says it’s her favorite serving bowl, and it fits the food philosophy infused in the pages of her cookbook.
Photos by New York-based photographer Jennifer May transport readers to Thielen’s Minnesota, where farmland, livestock, fresh-from-the-garden produce and small-town landmarks (think grocery stores, bars and butcher shops) set the scene for a truly Midwestern experience.
Mismatched vintage dishes are piled with pickled beets, meatballs and walleye – a lineup you might find on any Midwesterner’s table.
The 38-year-old’s home in Two Inlets, Minn., is at the heart of the book – it’s where she writes recipes, cooks for her family and friends, and filmed episodes for her Food Network show. The rural township in Becker County (near Park Rapids, where Thielen grew up) has a population of less than 240, and Thielen says its inhabitants are “into food.”
If her book isn’t proof enough, Thielen’s posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter will convince skeptics that the Midwest cares about great-tasting food.
On Oct. 24, Thielen expressed her enthusiasm about a local cheese maker to her Instagram followers, writing, “Locals, rejoice. Some guy named Lawrence is making incredible raw-milk goat cheese! Curds like feather pillows.”
“What I get kind of excited about is when good food, like wholesome, natural food, kind of crosses the socioeconomic boundaries. ... What I see, from this rural place, is that it’s popular among all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds.”
Food & Wine Magazine, The Huffington Post, Esquire, Food Network and Country Living magazines, along with other radio and news outlets, have recognized Thielen’s fresh approach to Midwestern food.
Tricia Cornell, who writes for Twin Cities-based magazine “The Heavy Table,” calls Thielen’s version of Midwestern food “conscious of its heritage, but not trapped in amber.”
Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate Amber Fletschock, who illustrated “The New Midwestern Table,” shares Thielen’s love of unpretentious, heritage-rich food. The artist lives about an hour from Thielen in Hewitt, population 258.
The women, along with their husbands, were introduced at a restaurant in Wadena, at the insistence of the restaurant owner’s wife.
“We kind of knew we were kindred folk and kindred spirits,” Thielen says.
The couples became friends, and Thielen asked Fletschock to illustrate her cookbook.
“I knew once I saw her work that she had her finger on the pulse of the Midwesternness that I wanted to capture,” she says.
Fletschock describes her illustration style as “pretty intricate, but it still has kind of a wonkiness to it.” Her patterns and designs are based on nature and strengthen the cookbook’s folky feel.
“It felt like we were on the same page,” Fletschock says. “It took a while to get the style we wanted. Amy called it ‘prairie hardcore’ by the end. It’s very sweet, but it’s got this edge to it. It’s kind of like the way living in this area is: There’s lots of beauty, but you have to deal with the cold and the snow and work hard.”
Thielen’s cooked plenty of meals for Fletschock, including a carrot salad dressed with lime juice and cilantro, “lovely” lamb kabobs and peanut maple fudge bars (the recipe’s in Thielen’s cookbook) that are too good to share. Fletschock says she admires Thielen’s honest cooking style.
Although she attended culinary school and worked under celebrated chefs for seven years in New York City, Thielen maintains her Minnesota roots. Her modesty is evident in conversation when she refers to herself as a “cook” or writer rather than a chef.
“She puts her heart into it. It’s handed down; everything’s handed down. It’s all about family and tradition and loving where you’re from,” Fletschock says. “It’s about really caring about your food and caring about the people you’re serving it to. That’s what Amy does. If she’s writing or talking, she’s genuine and generous.”
Fletschock’s sentiments harmonize with Thielen’s definition of good food – it’s simply food “you grow yourself or you know where it comes from.” Of course, she sometimes buys hamburger and chicken breasts from the grocery store, “just like everyone else” and says that’s part of a cook’s job – to make commercial produce and meat into something tasty.
With every meal, Thielen strives to use nutritionally dense food that’s homegrown by her, her neighbors or local farmers. She also butchers a pig when she can, usually once a year.
“It’s not all one way. It’s not about piety. It’s about finding treats. I really do believe that your taste guides you, and things that taste better are better for you,” Thielen says.
Cherished recipes and family life
Some of Thielen’s favorite recipes fall in a category she’s coined “Midwestern vernacular,” or food from immigrant traditions that’ve stood the test of time.
The runzas she first ate at her husband Aaron Spangler’s grandparents’ house in Nebraska fit the bill. The meat-filled bun was popularized by German-Russian immigrants, and there’s even a fast-food chain in the state that specializes in the delicacy.
“That’s the kind of thing that gets me very, very excited. You find this thing that’s so Midwestern, and the coasts don’t know about it,” Thielen says.
Another recipe she considers unique to this region is her Rhubarb-Lime Icebox Pie. Her fondness of tart desserts was the driving force behind the recipe’s development.
“My 6-year-old asked for it for his birthday instead of a cake. It’s really good, and it’s pink. Midwesterners really love rhubarb,” she says.
Hank, Thielen’s son, loves the Bee Gees, so that’s been her cooking music lately as she works on her second cookbook. Thielen shares that it’ll have more narrative than her first book, and she’s hoping for a long winter so she’s snowed in, writing.
Thielen hasn’t always spent winters at her home in Two Inlets. The log cabin didn’t have electricity for years, so Thielen and her family would spend only summers there. She says the time “off the grid” was important for her as a cook.
“It put me in touch with the techniques and a lot of recipes from an earlier era,” she explains. “That was a time when I was exploring a lot of old cookbooks and finding inspiration in the things they did, like fermenting and the kind of baking they did.”
She milled wheat by hand, a process that taught her about American food. Thielen gained an appreciation for white flour, something she says was surprising.
“The reason I did was because I was hand grinding it and realizing that at one time, that very silky white flour was a miracle,” she says.
Thielen’s thinking about Thanksgiving now and ordered a turkey from a local producer. She knows she’ll cook with her mom, Karen Dion, and wants to make the billowy Rutabaga Bake from her cookbook.
The Minnesota native will also bake a bunch of pies, like a traditional pumpkin pie made instead from squash, and she’ll leave her guests wanting more.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525
Connect with Amy
Watch “Heartland Table,” at 4:30 p.m. Mondays on the Food Network. Episodes can also be downloaded on iTunes.