The biggest flavors come from the smallest farms and tiniest towns. That’s the word from one of Minnesota’s homegrown chefs — cookbook author, Food Network personality and new Hormel Foods brand ambassador Amy Thielen. A longtime champion of Midwestern traditional food and lifestyle, Amy grew up in small town Minnesota, just a couple hours from the Hormel Foods headquarters. She was born into a “bacon-making family” of German ancestry, and now she’s become an honorary member of the Hormel Foods family. We’re thrilled to have her.
While getting to know Amy, whether by talking to her or reading her work (especially her new memoir “Give a Girl a Knife”), you’re taken into a world where food fads and dietary restrictions do not hold sway. From childhood, she’s eaten as her grandparents ate — following her grandparents’ recipes, in fact. Classic culinary training followed by a 10-year stint in New York’s finest restaurants may have elevated her technique, but it didn’t change the fundamentals.
The simple ingredients and family recipes steeped in memories — the open-hearted American rural customs of abundance and hospitality — these are the essential elements of Amy’s cooking, and of her life. Because, to paraphrase her, American farm food is “a lifestyle, a tradition.” When she has questions about the world, she finds her answer in honest flavors from the farm.
So you can get to know her, here are a few of our favorite Amy Thielen quotes We look forward to seeing them in action through various exciting partnerships over the upcoming months.
7 Things To Know About Amy
I eat like my grandmother on the farm taught us all to eat. My grandmother had a coffee can of bacon fat in the refrigerator.Chef Amy Thielen
Amy grew up on a diet of roast meat, lots of butter and bacon, hand pies cooked over a fire pit, fresh vegetables straight from the garden and her mother’s traditional German baked treats. Today, she’s publicly a strong voice for cooking with bacon fat, as grandmother always did. She was among the first public figures to voice that sugar and carbs are what make people gain weight — not fat itself.
“I’ve eaten more pink pork than anybody. My mom used to just fry up bacon as a snack, instead of popcorn.”
The family she references the most often (besides her grandmother) is her cousins who own “the most famous little meat market and smokehouse in Minnesota.” She promises they have a cult-like following.
I’m exposing and writing and talking about the traditions that are already here. Hunting, fishing, foraging, gathering. Midwesterners don’t broadcast it; it’s just what people do.”
From her cabin on a 150-acre piece of wilderness, Amy has become an emissary of rural American cuisine — but not through deconstructing, rarefying or reinventing it. She simply is the public face for a cultural movement that’s seeing people return to the country lifestyle — and the country kitchen. “You move to the country so you can have the time to make dinner,” she summarizes.
If she has been part of elevating the status of traditional food, she says it’s by raising awareness of the great ingredients grown here that hadn’t previously been reflected in the greater food culture.
“I compare Midwestern eating to Italian food in that it’s simple and unadorned. Simple ingredients in peak season, cooked and served when they’re dead ripe. But like Italian ingredients, ours don’t always translate; you can’t really move them elsewhere.”
While every American city and town has their own “Italian fine dining restaurant” and a couple casual pizza places, Amy’s training in famous New York kitchens taught her how complex and difficult it is to get the kind of gorgeous produce that’s grown in Italian or French farm country—unless you grow it yourself. (Not sure I get that last sentence: maybe omit?)
She explains that a meticulous level of detail in raising and harvesting and cooking each and every ingredient is a very Midwestern trait. And it’s those details that elevate a food from good to great. So, instead of using great local products to make displaced European food, she uses them to revamp and elevate the most recognizable and iconic Midwestern recipes.
“I feel like food cost is the white elephant in the room, and acknowledging it is a food writer’s social responsibility. Cost does matter. I buy things in a value-conscious way, and I also grow a lot of food and do a lot of canning.”
In most American towns and cities, if you want authentic homemade preserves, you buy them at a farmers market or gourmet grocery, paying top dollar for a tiny mason jar. But if you do it yourself, it’s not just a cost saver but a way to exercise control over the taste and the quality.
Once you get into canning and preserving, she cautions, it does become a habit, and every harvest season comes with guilt that you have to do it or you’re squandering. But in the long term, it’s more fulfilling than having fruit trees that don’t bear fruit at all because you don’t have time to tend the trees.
Rural food has an influence on the media and the tastemakers in the city, because that’s where some of the more traditional American foodways come from. Small food becomes big food.Chef Amy Thielen
While some self-anointed culinary experts may flock to Tulum for a $900 Scandinavian pop-up dinner, Amy is part of a culinary professional niche that finds the greatest inspiration in their own back yard — or back alley. Depending where home is, the best food discovery may originate in a hole-in-the-wall dim sum parlor, or on a family farm two counties over. The common denominator is that tight-knit community dynamic where one person’s humble specialty might become vital within the local identity.
“In the country, you don’t really get together socially at restaurants. All of the socializing takes place in homes. Everything is garage party, buffet style, informal.”
In a story for Saveur magazine, Amy introduces city epicureans to the great Minnesota winter tradition of garage parties. With full-length cozy coats and boots as the recommended attire, informal self-service as the rule, and every shared dish served in extra-large portions, these oh-so-casual parties are normal wintertime social events for many Hormel Foods customers. But for city dwellers, they’re an absolute revelation. A party where people hang out in puffy down, maybe? coats? How extraordinary!