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In 2008, a year after their son was born, Thielen and Aaron 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 magazine and Men’s Journal, as well as the Star Tribune. Her Midwestern focus led to a two-book contract with Clarkson Potter, and a collection of stories from the Taste section earned her a James Beard award in 2011. Her first cookbook, “The New Midwestern Table,” will be released this month. The TV show serves as a kind of companion, each show focusing on a recipe or two from the book.
A champion of the region
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 back-yard 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 said. 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 said. “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 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 said. 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,” said Bastianich by e-mail from Italy.
“It’s refreshing to see someone address the food of the Midwest with such passion and understanding. She loves the Midwest and wants to share it with others,” said 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,” said 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 many car trips. The rest of the time was spent at her cabin kitchen, which was turned into a TV 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,” said Thielen.
“If you eat a fresh potato, it’s a great experience. I don’t have to change anything.”
Spoken like a true Midwesterner.