Amy Thielen has a big, fluffy rescue dog named Hilly, a sculptor husband named Aaron, and a lovely son named Hank. She lives outside rural Two Inlets, Minn., near her childhood hometown, in a house with a big yellow Italian wood cookstove.
She also has a couple of books to her name (The New Midwestern Table and Give a Girl a Knife) and another one coming, as well as a TV show in her rearview mirror (Heartland Table) and another one in development.
How does one writing cook manage it all? Mainly, she says, by turning a skeptical eye on ideas like having it all.
“I minored in women’s studies,” Thielen explains, “and I’ve always been very aware of this performative femininity that you’re expected to do in food media.” So, you won’t find her wearing of-the-minute fashions or lounging amid gardens filled with hedges neatly trimmed into geometric shapes.
You will find her posting videos of the dump truck delivering a cord of firewood for the weekend and shooing the dog away from the cutting board as she dices bacon.
“People expect me to be this aspirational forest mama, and I can provide a bit of that, but my generation is more of an authenticity-seeking unit,” she says. “I care about writing, I care about teaching people to cook. If I need to provide some of that aspirational ideal to make that happen, I can do that a little — a very little.”
To keep things real and down to earth, Thielen employs a few helpful tools and tricks, including these.
“Instead of cooking from recipes, I like to make one simple thing — usually some local meat — with potatoes, rice, or beans on the side. If I just get something going, it’s creative material. I don’t have to think about what we’re having for dinner — I build from what I started, which takes the decision-making pressure away.”
Soak, soak, soak:
“I always have bowls of ingredients soaking. I start them the night before — sometimes it’s dried beans like mayocoba beans or something fun from Rancho Gordo — and in the morning, I get them going on the woodstove with three bay leaves, two or three chili pods, a garlic head with its top lopped off, salt, and pepper. I also might have dried hibiscus flowers soaking, dried apricots in white wine. I just like to have a lot of things soaking all the time — it makes me feel good.”
“When we redid our kitchen [pictured above], I went for a riot of color — really dark cabinets that look almost black but they’re a really intense blue-green, a red-brick floor, a yellow stove, and lots of green plants. I want a feed of visual stimulation; it’s pleasing, there’s information in it. Half the year in Minnesota the entire landscape outside the windows is white — why would you want more of it?”
“I’m more into weightlifting than cardio, so we built a gym in Aaron’s studio. I’ll have the TV on with captions, put music on my headphones, and lift until I feel sore. It makes me feel like I’ve worked. I love it.”
A sensory kickstart:
“I get food going first thing in the morning because it kickstarts the day. If I’m engaged immediately with something sensory — like digging in the dirt — it sparks everything and puts me on a good footing. If I’m feeling off-center, I always go to the fridge, take a spoon, dip it into this, dip it into that — something about that gives me a little juice.”