Amy Thielen’s memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, tells the story of a food geek’s journey (with her partner, Aaron) from suburban northern Minnesota to a homestead in the woods, to gritty line-cook gigs in Manhattan, and back again. It’s a harrowing tapestry of hotdish-centric Midwest cooking and reality-show kitchen angst with Thielen at the center, providing a perspective that can only come from deep reflection.
I must admit a bias here before going farther: I’m a little burnt out on chef memoirs, for the same reason that I rarely watch reality cooking shows. The gruelingly fast pace of the fine-dining kitchen, the seeming impossibility of the chefs appreciating any dish they taste, and the line cooks’ frenzied yelling all make me more anxious than I care to be on any given Netflix binge.
There’s definitely plenty of that reality TV drama here. Thielen describes 80-hour work weeks with no overtime pay; chefs laying on the sarcasm and sexism as thick as aoli; persnickety hours spent perfecting a buttery sauce that the chef ultimately can’t stomach. But, in all the chaos, there’s a thread running through Thielen’s prose, a touchstone that always leads to her home in Minnesota and her desire to move back “someday.”
Thus, the conflict of this memoir hinges on place, the city versus the country, the hustle of New York versus the woods (and I do mean woods) of Minnesota. It’s a quintessentially relatable quandary for many Minnesotans who adore where they grew up yet possess a certain amount of wanderlust.
Though Amy and Aaron’s “Where should we be?” predicament is always present, Thielen has a knack for description and revelry for her sensory surroundings. She describes her dishwashing routine in a house with no running water, boiling and roasting a pig’s head while several months pregnant (trigger warning—it’s kind of gruesome), and the precision necessary to pee outside without splashback. With chapters that open with sentences such as “I had visited New York a few times before we moved there, but I hadn’t bargained for the way it would smell on a daily basis,” you know it’s going to be a bit gnarly, and that’s part of Thielen’s charm.
Minnesotans will recognize references to late-night shopping at Red Owl; the comforts of cooking hotdish (“Digging up a deep forkful made a rich sticky sound, as if the hotdish were taking a deep breath”); and histrionic winters that are “petulant, beautiful, roaring, and blindingly arctic.” There’s a thick blanket of nostalgia to cuddle under here if you remember your Midwestern childhood fondly. You might also, as I did, roll your eyes a bit at Amy and Aaron’s seemingly unwavering earnestness to their “back to the land” ideals and, ultimately, their own nostalgia. That said, whether you relate to it or not, Amy and Aaron are likeable protagonists, and Thielen’s writing dances with deadpan Midwestern humor, so you find yourself rooting for them anyway, whatever it is they decide to do.
Thielen writes: “Here’s the funny thing about going back to your hometown. You don’t just jump into the same old story. You step back into your shadow, but into a totally new narrative.” That new narrative she creates is here for the world in Give a Girl a Knife, and her ability to recreate is definitely worth the read.