Food writing is some of the most eupeptic writing there is. It's impossible to feel completely miserable when you're reading about someone enjoying a really good meal, especially if the writer is generous enough to provide sufficient detail to let you imagine it for yourself. Amy Thielen, however, is the first food writer I've ever read who makes me yearn for the hard physical labor of cooking. Whenever I have to prepare a meringue, I give thanks to the genius who invented the KitchenAid mixer, but in her new memoir Give a Girl a Knife, Thielen makes whipping egg whites with a whisk seem like a joyous experience and dinner service at a busy Manhattan restaurant absolutely transcendent. "As the chaos of the nighttime dinner kitchen mounted," she writes, "I located a weird stillness in myself. As the intensity tightened, the more my inner reverb began to hum."
For Thielen, cooking is an "affliction," the same term her husband, the sculptor Aaron Spangler, uses to describe his compulsion to make art. Give a Girl a Knife is the story of her quest to develop the technical skill and the palate to make the flavors of the ingredients of her native northern Minnesota sing. If you read the author bio on the back flap of the book jacket, you know she succeeded: her previous book, The New Midwestern Table, won a James Beard Foundation Award, and she had her own show, Heartland Table, on the Food Network. But what makes Give a Girl a Knife so good is that while the outcome of the story is never in doubt, there's an element of suspense in how Theielen gets there.
In the beginning, Thielen was an ordinary midwestern girl with a mom who'd aspired to be a chef but settled for being a great home cook. In college she fell in love with Spangler, who grew up in the same small town, Park Rapids, Minnesota, but who wasn't ordinary: besides being an artist who sang in a glam band, he was also an aspiring homesteader who built himself a one-room cabin on his family's hunting land in Two Inlets State Forest. The place was so far off the grid it had neither plumbing nor electricity. Living there was like living in the 1880s, which, to Thielen, who moved in with Spangler after graduation, was part of the attraction. "I wanted to cook like my Midwestern great-grandma," she writes, "with scantness at my back. I wanted to pick a bowl of peas in the afternoon and bathe them in butter to fully capture their fleeting sweetness."
But, as she discovers in the book's first chapter, her ambition far outstrips her skill, and she and Spangler move to Brooklyn so she can go to cooking school and he can network his way into the art world. For the next seven years, Thielen works as a line cook under David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Shea Gallante, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. This is the first part of Give a Girl a Knife and by far the most exciting, as Thielen gets caught up in the world of the restaurant kitchen, a place that seems almost magical. Time shifts, a few drops of vinegar or a sprinkle of salt transform a bland dish into something sublime, and the cooks "channel all their hopes and wishes and ambitions into the center of the plate, letting their liquid emotions fall off the sides," she writes.
Part two, the antithesis of part one, isn't magical at all. It's a chronicle of Thielen's early years in Park Rapids and her and Spangler's initial adventures in homesteading, and while there are some exciting moments, the story is less about kitchen alchemy than hard work rewarded with love and warmth. (The homesteading parts are slightly reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie, except that Thielen experiences far more self-doubt than Ma Ingalls ever did.) But that's part of the point. In part three, Thielen learns to synthesize the magic of New York with her Minnesota heritage, to combine her culinary tricks with the instincts she inherited from her mother and grandmother, and, as she puts it, "[take] my place in a long line of fearless Midwestern women cooks who were possessed of sharp knives, sprawling cut-flower gardens, and big opinions about food."
This is, of course, a very personal vision of the midwest, and midwestern women in particular, and Thielen's midwest feels as distant to me as those New York kitchens she learned to cook in. But she did make me start thinking about the place I come from, and what people ate there, and how I can make it part of my life now, the way Thielen brought her past into the present. I've never tasted any of Thielen's food—though it gave me great pleasure to imagine it, even the headcheese—but she seems to have found a way to make it tell the same story that she's told in this book. I imagine her dishes are thoughtful and carefully composed, with juicy centers and caramelized edges, and, most of all, made, as her fellow line cooks liked to say, with love. v