Give a Girl a Knife

An excerpt from Food Network star Amy Thielen’s new memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, details how she established her love for food


photo courtesy of clarkson potter publishers

Amy Thielen, of Park Rapids, Minnesota, has cooked at some of New York City’s top restaurants, hosted her own Food Network television show, and published a cookbook. But before all that, she was a fresh Macalester grad who moved into the one-room house her boyfriend built in the middle of the woods not far from their shared hometown—but worlds away from it, literally, with its lack of running water and electricity. The story of how this experience established Thielen’s love of food and launched her culinary adventure is excerpted from her new memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, published by Clarkson Potter next month.

My decision to move to a rustic one-room house way out in the middle of the yawning forest was a puzzlement to my parents, my friends, and initially even to myself. Aaron’s house lay only a precarious twenty miles away from Park Rapids, the hometown to which I’d never expected my postcollege self to return. As I drove past the green Park Rapids sign population, 3,976, I saw my former isolation with clear eyes. My two-stoplight hometown was deep in lake country, four hours north of Minneapolis–St. Paul, and hours away from any town that might be considered a city. It was flush with nostalgia and pine trees but pretty short on great restaurants, bookstores, or cultural events—everything I’d come to love during my college years in Minneapolis. It wasn’t exactly where I envisioned myself settling. I can track this trajectory shift back to a single moment, the coda to my Park Rapids childhood: When I turned sixteen, the winter my parents split up, I learned how to properly whip my car into a doughnut (what we called a “shitty”) on the icy tundra of the empty nighttime grocery-store parking lot. My friends and I were good girls and didn’t usually do such things, but we assiduously practiced our car twirls—speeding, whipping the wheel, and spinning wildly out of control—feeling the circadian swoop low in our bellies, as if by mastering it we could conquer our fears of moving out and moving on. When my family split and we left a few months later, it was as though I’d been interrupted midspin, leaving me for years afterward with an irrational surplus of feeling for my hometown. It was like a dumb phantom limb that wouldn’t stop tingling.

Going almost home, to Aaron’s house twenty miles north, felt close, but reassuringly out-of-bounds. It wasn’t exactly a homecoming, but a do-over.

At the time I pinned my attraction to the place—in addition to the romance of shacking up with my new boyfriend in the woods—on our large garden and the chance to grow all our own food. As was typical of a late-1990s liberal-arts college graduate, especially one who had spent her senior year combing through farm women’s journals in search of poetic quotidian verse for her thesis on outsider American lit, I was burning with desire to cook like the pioneers.

As I drove past my childhood split-level house in Park Rapids, the obsession felt incongruous. I’d grown up with a mother whose cooking was so outsized that she could have almost cut a window in her back door and gone commercial. She was a shopper, not a gardener, a woman who beat a five-block path to the Red Owl grocery store once a day and sometimes twice. Her caramels, her bacon-fried rice, and her Caesar salad (trademarked with a burning amount of garlic) made her a minor star in our neighborhood circle, and in our lives. But it was the area’s rustic woodstove history, mixed with my grandma’s memories of her farmhouse childhood, that gave me daydreams. Homemade sausage patties preserved under a thick frosting of white lard, horseradish-grinding sessions that drove everyone from the house in tears, long canning days that fogged the windows until they wept with steam, soaring homemade potato bread baked in twelve-loaf batches, four at a time. Installed now on a rough-board porch in the woods shelling a basket of peas from the garden, I 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.

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, because I’d read tall tales of 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.

In our kitchen, my turn-of-the-century farmhouse dream was distressingly accurate. At just four feet by six, it was my foxhole. Its compactness made it oddly convenient. A massive propane-powered 1940s Roper stove sat in the middle, its four burners set wide in an expanse of milky-white porcelain. Standing at the stove, I didn’t have to move my feet to reach the sink or the shelves, and a quick pivot squared me to the large butcher-block counter to my left. The stove’s two identical rust holes burned out on either side were the telltale signs of a lifetime spent firing double-wide boiling water-bath canners, so it had good genetics—but bad mechanics. To light the tiny oven, I had to turn on the gas, shove a lit match into the pilot peephole, lean back, and wait for the loud whoof of the burner plate erupting into flames.

Water was our daily preoccupation. Every morning Aaron heaved a full five-gallon spigoted water container onto the high counter over the double sink, under which we had positioned two five-gallon buckets, one for each drain. When I turned the spigot, the water ran into the sink and then down into a plastic bucket. When the bucket was empty, the echo of the water sounded loose and floppy; the echo sounded tighter—more nervous—when the water neared the top, as if to warn me that it was getting full. (Certain mistakes you make only once, and letting one of those drain buckets overflow is one of them.) To do the dishes, I filled a three-gallon kettle, heated it on the stove, poured the boiling water into the sink, and tempered it with the cold until I could submerge my hands, red and ringing, long enough to wash a pot. I liked it hot.

By my estimation, on a normal day, we used about three-and-a-half gallons of water, and about five gallons when we had people over. I was surprised when visitors looked at this jury-rigged setup with lopsided grins because it seemed to me like a perfectly good system. With it in place I cooked everything we ate
—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In the beginning, I picked all the green things from our garden, boiled them, soaked them in butter, and served them in a moat around a central chunk of meat—as my mother had fully equipped me to do. But soon I realized that unless I wanted to drive into town every other day for meat, I would have to cook differently. I’d have to focus on the vegetables from the garden.

At that single-slab counter, I learned how. In the mornings I fried eggs in butter with grassy, peppery rings of Hungarian wax pepper and steamed them until the yolks clouded over. I whisked aioli in a bowl perched on my belly to serve with the lone steamed artichoke we had coaxed to grow. I peeled buckets of apples we picked from an abandoned tree on an old homestead nearby and stewed them into coppery mounds of sauce. I simmered plum tomatoes with the sticky, resiny tufts o rosemary, then pummeled a lump of pasta dough, hooked a hand-cranked pasta machine to the butcher block, and painstakingly cut out long pappardelle. Underestimating how long this operation would take, I think we ate at ten that night by lamplight, Aaron cramped with hunger, me with none at all. Sitting under a dark cloud, I picked moodily at the too-thin delicate noodles, which really would have been better with a cream sauce. I had so much to learn.

When word got out that a young lady was living back there in the woods with a rustic kitchen, older women—some of them virtual strangers—came bearing their abandoned preserving gear: stacked boxes of dusty pint jars, old dented water-bath canners, ancient pressure canners whose gaskets and dials and clamps made them look as intimidating as bombs. Following the fine print in the Ball jar canning book, I set out to assemble an old-time pantry, an arsenal of flavors that couldn’t be found anywhere but here. Some were wild successes: chokecherry syrup that raced with tannins; crab-apple juice as tart as vinegar; fermented dilly beans as tingly as my grandma’s brined dill pickles; wild-berry bachelor’s jam embalmed in high-proof rum, instantly intoxicating. Other things—such as pickled eggplant (the texture of cotton balls) or wild Juneberry jam (which tasted only like its added sugar) or chowchow (just not into it)—felt like the waste of a good free jar.

For three years we lived like Minnesota snowbirds: “up north” at the house outside Park Rapids for the six months of the gardening season and four hours south in Minneapolis for the winter months. To fund this routine we hoarded the income we made from our city jobs and coasted on it through our underemployed summers, during which we had no bills to pay. Aaron’s summer days were filled with making sculptures and pumping water. Mine were taken up with cooking—at home and, eventually, three mornings a week at a diner on Main Street in Park Rapids, where I earned five dollars an hour, a paycheck that just about covered the gas it cost to get there.

At some point into our third summer in Two Inlets, after we’d gradually updated our situation to include a landline phone, a single solar panel, and a propane-powered fridge, I hit a plateau.

Author Amy Thielen at Park Rapids home and garden

Photo by tj turner

I remember sitting in our garden slowly thinning the baby kohlrabi we’d planted for a fall harvest. It was fine work, pinching out the crowd of extra stem follicles. The kohlrabi looked like a two-leaf clover, as did most of the sprouts, but I had learned to distinguish the baby brassica—the cabbages and broccolis and collards—as slightly duller than their shinier Swiss-chard-and-beet brethren. The kohlrabi sprouts were the opaquest of them all, their almost rubbery-looking leaves foretelling the waxy, long-armed globe that would eventually grow.

I worked so intently that the animals around me forgot I was there. The frog to my right made its way slowly through the beet tops, pausing mightily between each jump, as if making thoughtful moves on a chess board. A crow swooped in to land on our cucumber trellis, cawing and beating its heavy wings against the wood; the red-winged blackbird it was terrorizing replied with a scream from its fence perch. Two tweaky chipmunk rivals chased each other over the zucchini arms, the winner chattering in delight as it squeezed through a tiny hole in the fence. The sweet white wings of the blight-bearing cabbage moths fluttered around my legs.

I followed the chipmunks, pushing back the large furry zucchini leaves. Mine were not your typical Midwestern zucchini, the kind famous for its bonanza yields. I had paged through seed catalogs until I found an heirloom known for both its firmness and its flavor: Costata Romanesco. Leggy and overbearing, its vines walked all over the garden like they owned the place. This plant was miserly with its ribbed zucchini, but the ones that grew were tight and not a bit watery, with almost invisible seeds. I checked the one I’d been eyeing for two days, reached into the spiky vines, and snapped it off. I stripped ripe Romano beans hanging against the trellis until it looked like I’d gotten them all, then flipped my perspective and went around to the other side and found a bunch more hiding in the vines. I filled the basket with the rest of what needed picking—a couple of Hungarian wax peppers, a mound of fresh potatoes—and marched up the hill to the house.

With this motley assortment, I faced my big question of the day: how to make a memorable meal out of this mystery basket. My head filled with mental pictures from the cookbooks I’d gorged myself on the night before, I knew that great cooking began with the finest ingredients, and I certainly had those.

I dumped the dirty potatoes in the sink, rubbed the fine hair off the zucchini with a damp cloth, saved the peppers for breakfast, and put the beans to the side. I grabbed the two pork chops lying on the ice blocks in the fridge and rubbed them with dry spices as my mom did, planning to fry them in butter. With the zucchini, I wanted to make the dish I’d read about: a nest of julienned zucchini noodles dressed with garlic, pine nuts, and red pepper flakes, as al dente as a pile of pasta. For the potatoes I fell back on a family favorite: German potato salad.

I sliced the zucchini as thinly as I could and then cut the slices crosswise into strips—not as finely as in the cookbook illustration. I fired up a pan, the yellow propane flames surging up the sides, covered it with olive oil, and tipped open the very expensive jar of pine nuts I’d been saving. The nuts scuttled across my board. I bit into one and saw a pale white center; was that a core or a worm? Not exactly a hot item in Park Rapids, the pine nuts had sat on the shelf for who knows how long. I threw them into the pan anyway. I scurried to chop the garlic before the nuts burned, added it to the pan, walked half a step away to search for my jar of pepper flakes, and came back to find the garlic burning, I quickly dumped in the zucchini, stirred it up, and then turned around to the sink to scrub the potatoes. They came out of the ground in all sizes—some grenades, some gumballs.

While I cooked, the sun sank rapidly, as if someone were drowning it under the waterline of the horizon. I lit the two oil lamps in the kitchen and shoved all my dirty dishes behind a curtained cupboard.

We sat down to a caveman pork chop flanked by two hills: a sliding pile of bacon-slicked potatoes and a collapsed heap of zucchini noodles. My perfect zucchini, the ones that I’d babied from seed, slumped in an olive-green heap, slicked with burned garlic oil and studded with possibly wormy pine nuts. Why had I cooked it so early and let it sit? What a rookie mistake.

Aaron read my face. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “This is fine!”

He nailed it. It was fine. No matter how pristine my raw materials were, I ended up with one thing: a fine plate of supper. It wasn’t bad, but the composition was hardly artful. The flavors weren’t roped together in any kind of meaningful, memorable way. Individual notes don’t a song make, I thought and melted into my chair. My food obsession was growing at a disproportionate rate to my stalling skills, and every fresh trip to the garden followed by every night’s disappointing dinner just made it worse. My cooking was starting to feel like blind groping: I could feel the shape of the thing I wanted to make,
but I couldn’t see it.

No question: Ours was a beautiful, simple life. I felt safe here, in our vegetable kingdom, in knowing that the asparagus and the rhubarb would return in the spring; that the chokecherries would come on the branch in early August and sugar would erase their woolly mouthfeel; that the wild rice growing on the creek—right in our front yard—would ripen around the time that summer came to a close. These things would continue to grow, with us or without us. The place wasn’t
going anywhere.

And I finally had to admit it: Neither was I.

Read more: Learn more about Amy and her love for all things cooking in the full edition of “Give a Girl a Knife.”

Copyright © 2017 by Amy Thielen. To be published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. on May 16, 2017.