It’s hard, when you get too close to a thing, to know it. It’s easy to describe the particulars of what you ate for dinner tonight, but how do you describe the food you grew up with — the food you might still eat most days, the food that surrounds you — in more general terms, in words that still capture what brings it together as a thing?
That’s why I wouldn’t pretend to tell you what “Midwestern” food is, certainly not in any comprehensive way. (By the way, let’s agree not to talk about cans and cream-of-this and cream-of-that, three-ingredient casseroles, tater tots, and suspect things floating in Jell-O. That’s not Midwestern food; that’s industrial food and found coast to coast. I certainly ate more than my fair share of that and I grew up nowhere near here.)
Whatever Midwestern food is, you know it when you see it. And when you see Amy Thielen’s debut cookbook, The New Midwestern Table (Clarkson Potter, 2013), you know you’re looking at the real thing — Midwestern food in all its honest, generous, rich, seasonal, garden-grown, friendly glory. Thielen’s version of Midwestern food is conscious of its heritage, but not trapped in amber.
Is that review a little bit gushy? Let me gush some more, because reviewers rarely get to do that: I loved every single dish I made from this book.
I made a silky, creamy chicken casserole thick with wild rice.
I made a moist chocolate sheet cake that looked and tasted like a summer picnic and instantly made me want to make it again.
I made fried chicken. I mean, I made fried chicken! (My family: “Why don’t you make fried chicken more often… or, ever?”)
To go with the fried chicken, I made chewy-crispy, buttery spaetzle; crunchy, buttery cabbage; and sweet-garlicky, buttery beet greens. And I regretted not a tablespoon of that butter.
I made the red jello Thielen flavors with strawberries, raspberries and — oh! — red currants, but in the freezer I had farmshare strawberries and mulberries from a city park, and the spirit of the dish shone through. Scented with cardamom, it tasted like the best of summer and Christmas.
And, having cooked my way through ten recipes, I’ve still got my eye on at least ten more. Look at your shelf of cookbooks. How many can you say that about?
After cooking some of Amy Thielen’s food, I wanted to talk with her about Midwestern food’s reputation — and how to do something about it. She’s Central Minnesota born and raised but spent many years cooking in New York City, so she knows a little bit about the way people look at you when you put “Minnesota” and “food” in the same sentence.
I imagined her cooking something up in her farmhouse kitchen for a foreigner (or an East Coaster) that would make that person say, “Now I know what your food culture is. And it is delicious.”
What would that be?
Thielen immediately says, “I would definitely make wild rice” — wood-parched, naturally harvested manoomin, that is, the kind that grows right in the creek behind her house. “In the spring it’s an open waterway, but by fall it’s choked up with rice,” she says. “When you have rice that good and it tastes so smoky, you don’t have to do much, just steam it with some aromatics and toss it with toasted hazelnut butter. Just let it shine.”
So, absolutely wild rice. But would a true Midwestern meal begin with an appetizer? “I don’t do any formal starters,” Thielen says. “We sit around our firepit a lot in the summer, because it’s just a great focal point. We cook a lot over pine, because that’s what we have, but I’ve really come to love the flavor of food cooked over pine. It tastes like home.”
She describes good bread — not easy to find in Park Rapids, she’ll have you know — sliced thick, slathered with bacon fat, and grilled hard over the fire. Some of that slathered further with smoked eggplant or a coarse pesto of smoky grilled Italian zucchini — now that is a Midwestern appetizer.
On the main dish, Thielen at first seems resolute: “I love fresh chicken,” she says. “The skin is thicker on a barnyard-raised bird, and the meat isn’t watery.” But then she wavers. “Maybe, if I were making an iconic Midwestern meal, I wouldn’t do chicken. We have a lot of game [on our property] and hunting parties just come by with ducks. If they get eight ducks, they knock on the door and bring me two.” She looks forward to dear season opener, too, she says, because there are hunting parties that come up to her land every year. “I use venison anywhere lamb could go,” she says, usually wet-aged in the fridge for about a week. (Her recipe for venison kebabs is in the book.)
But, after considering game, Thielen wavers again. Walleye meuniere — a hot pan, a little flour, a little butter. “It’s really light and let’s the fish flavor come through,” she says. “That always wows them.” She’s got a fisherman friend who’s likely to knock on the door, fish in one hand, wine in the other, because he knows Thielen’s always ready to fry up his catch.
And, for dessert? Without a doubt, rhubarb. It’s a cliche, but like all cliches, it’s based in truth. Rare is the Midwesterner whose eyes don’t light up thinking about the first spring rhubarb. “It’s the long winter,” Thielen says. “You’re craving something fresh and tart.”
Thielen likes to bake rhubarb in a very concentrated syrup so that it holds its shape. It’s European technique layered over a Midwestern church cookbook favorite, and a lovely representation of her overall approach: modern, technically sound, and grounded in tradition.
Thielen plays gamely along with my scenario, imagining an iconic Midwestern meal that would knock the socks off a snobbish — let’s say, skeptical — visitor. But then she says, “You know, we don’t have anything to be defensive about. We’re still deciding what our food is. We’re just now at the point where we can do that. It’s a young area.”