APRIL 26, 2018

Cookbook Review: The New Midwestern Table – 200 Heartland Recipes

In her masterful James Beard Award Winning The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes(Potter 2013), Amy Thielen does so many different things for her readers that we sense over time that we are being wonderfully spoiled.

Originally an English major, first and foremost the cookbook is written and assembled with a writer’s sensibility for capturing character, family history, and a deep sense of the local as she has observed it from her “rustic nonelectric cabin on eighty acres near the unincorporated community of Two Inlets, twenty miles from my hometown in northern Minnesota.”

As a chef, she had left the local for a handful of years to learn her craft in some of the more prestigious restaurants in New York City, only to very purposefully return to her Midwestern roots in order to apply these new techniques to old recipes. Along the way, the thoughts for this modern take on Midwestern cuisine culminate as the cookbook itself, something like a modern handmade recipe album, and provides us a much needed new working definition of what our food style means: “If Midwestern cooking has been hard to pin down, I think it’s because our best food has always been a celebration of this large, dynamic, plain spoken place. Like the food, the vast interior of this country may seem ordinary to outsiders looking in, but it feels privately epic to those of who live here.”  

Re-engaging handed down family and regional recipes becomes the momentum of the entire book. From “Dips, Party Food & Drinks” to “Lakefish,” “Chicken Supper,” “Potatoes & Onions,” in recipes like “Smoked Whitefish Brandade” “Old Fashioned Pounded Cheese” or “Homemade Braunschweiger,” we get a strong sense for the original intent of the recipes as ways for gathering after long days in the fields, rice ponds or Minnesota lakes. “Something about the seesawing summer temperatures in the upper Midwest–the sticky days that plunge into refrigerated nights–causes a craving for a little braunschweiger,” which she says, “when made with good pork, heavy cream, sweet spices, and just enough liver for people to know that you’re serious, braunschweiger is a luxury.”

In one of the final sections of the book, “Projects,” she says of the making of your own sauerkraut that “Like many of German or Eastern European heritage, I grew up eating fermented sauerkraut, the honest kind. I heard of stories of making it on the farm in crocks that couldn’t be budged…the most important part of this recipe is the cabbage, which needs to be freshly plucked from the ground and full of moisture.”  The recipes are small town Minnesota nice, but directed by the tenacity of a New York chef.