I’m a perpetual sucker for food memoirs, so of course had to pull Give a Girl a Knife off the new book shelf at the library a couple of weeks ago. Since we don’t have cable, I didn’t even know that Amy Thielen formerly had a Food Network show (“Heartland Table”) — but that’s quite all right; her memoir covers older territory, ends several years before her tenure there, and (somewhat oddly) makes no mention of it anywhere.
This is no Give a Mouse a Cookie…
Which is, of course, where my mind immediately went from the title alone. Instead, Give a Girl a Knife hearkens back to Thielen’s childhood experiences cooking with her mother:
I never imagined that someday I’d have that same facility with a knife — although she assumed it. You give a girl a knife; that’s just what you do. Eventually, hopefully, she might learn how to use it. Someday she might even consider that knife an extension of her hand, as wedded to her finger as a nail.
The old, oft-sharpened paring knives of Thielen’s childhood seem worlds away from the gleaming Japanese knife set she purchased during one of her first stints as a line cook in a professional kitchen, but the tension between the two perfectly sums up the two worlds she bridges throughout this memoir.
New York Kitchens vs. Rural Minnesota
Give a Girl a Knife bounces back and forth between the kitchens of various fine dining establishments in New York and the woods of rural northern Minnesota, where Thielen spends a good portion of her 20s in a tiny off-the-grid cabin that initially lacks both running water and electricity. Thielen’s memoir is really the story of her journey to meld both worlds while remaining true to her culinary roots, culminating in her current Food Network gig and her cookbook The New Midwestern Table. Thielen lovingly describes how the best food pays homage to both the freshest ingredients and the cook’s culinary roots, whether this be in her grandmother’s kitchen, over her own rusted out cook stove in their little cabin in the woods, or in the kitchens of New York’s finest restaurants.
While her story and the descriptions of both her homesteading days and high-end restaurant adventures are beautifully written (especially the descriptions of the food!), Give a Girl a Knife tends to bounce around confusingly in time and place. This is likely a deliberate attempt to duplicate Thielen’s experience in straddling both worlds, but left me wishing for a more linear narrative that would better trace the path of her development as both a chef and as a person.
And, although Give a Girl a Knife isn’t a cookbook, I would have liked to have seen a few specific recipes here — especially after all of her detailed descriptions of her mother’s, grandmother’s, and her own home cooking. (And, I would have liked to see some photos!) Unfortunately, we’re denied both.
Still a worthwhile read
Despite these quibbles, however, Give a Girl a Knife proved a thoroughly engrossing read. While Thielen’s path isn’t one I’d ever choose for myself (I’m a little too attached to indoor plumbing…), her descriptions of the way food brings people together and can be the cook’s expression of love are spot-on and her story is fascinating. Recommended, with some reservations.
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