Amy Thielen keeps us company and reminds us food is about the people we love
The James Beard Award-winning cookbook author reminds us to enjoy the company of friends in our homes. "Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others" includes stories, photographs, menus and recipes.
PARK RAPIDS — If you’re from Minnesota, you have heard this phrase before: “Company is coming!”
It’s time to load the celery stick with cream cheese and paprika, get dressed up and clean the house because someone is coming for a visit. As a kid, the idea of company was thrilling and daunting at the same time. Who was coming? What would Mom make to eat?
In her latest cookbook, Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others, Amy Thielen celebrates her small-town Minnesota roots and sensibilities.
We were excited to welcome Amy to the KAXE Morning Show. As longtime fans, KAXE Music Director Kari Hedlund and I decided the new book seemed to be exactly what we value most: getting together over a meal with the people we care most about in a setting we love, Northern Minnesota.
As Amy writes in the introduction of Company, “When we want to get together, we don’t drive twenty-five miles to meet at one of three restaurants in town; we go visiting.”
As it turns out, not everyone grew up understanding the word “company.”
“It's kind of almost like the title is a bit of a shout out or a little bit of a dog whistle to the people from the Midwest,” Amy told us, explaining her publishers in New York didn’t really understand the concept of company. “People from other areas of the United States or elsewhere, they say things like, ‘We’re having people for dinner,’ or, ‘We’re entertaining.’”
To Amy, the meaning of company is twofold. She describes a sort of reciprocity.
“You’re going to feed them … that’s implied, but they’re giving you the benefit of their company and they’re keeping you company.”
Company, the cookbook, feels personal and intimate, less like a cookbook and more like a dialogue.
“I decided that there's a kind of a time in this narrative in the book, when I'm talking to my (reader),” Amy said. “This book takes place in the daytime, in the afternoon when we're getting ready. Maybe when we're shopping, and then we're cooking, but then it completely ends.
“My conversation with you, the reader, ends as soon as people walk in the door.”
"When we want to get together we don’t drive 25 miles to meet at one of three restaurants in town. We go visiting.”Amy Thielen
Like the warmth of a meal with friends, Amy, in conversation, is friendly and engaging. It felt as natural as if we were hanging out in her backyard, waiting for the steak to be grilled to perfection — with fava bean butter, just like the first menu in the book.
As she talked about this notion of company, I remembered when I was a kid, stopping in at the older people’s houses in our neighborhood. We called it visiting, but really, it was about the snacks.
From the look on Amy’s face in our Zoom conversation, she, too, remembered.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “My neighbor Tina, we would get on our bikes and go around the block, and we’d go visit Bug the Candy Man. We’d go walk, you know, the neighbor’s dogs, they had two Samoyeds.”
And even though the conversation was a radio interview, when usually the hosts ask the questions, Amy asked me, “Who was on your route?”
And suddenly, I'm walking down the road with my summer friend Sherry to visit Grandma Motts. She had a piano in her mobile home and did a wonderful rendition of the rock ballad by Styx, “Come Sail Away.”
“We would also go visit the nuns who lived next door,” said Amy, adding more memories. “They would always give us cookies.”
We were definitely intrigued by the recipes in Company, like the Bok Choy Salad with Ramen-Almond Brittle.
“It sounds like that’s how it always should have been made with the ramen and almond brittle,” Kari said.
Amy writes about the overly sweet, chalky potluck standard she admits is still pretty good. When her friend Amber brought a new rendition to a potluck, she described it as “savory sesame granola meets childhood.”
The new recipe, which is brilliant according to Amy, uses bok choy instead of Napa cabbage — but the same cheap noodles, with a twist. Mixed with sugar, oil, salt and almonds and baked in the oven, the ramen becomes something entirely new.
“That is one of the things I served to the New York press and media,” she said, so they could understand the feel of the cookbook. “They loved it.”
Kari, too, looked at recipes in Company and thought about her childhood. She asked Amy about the recipe for Lemon Nemesis bars. “My mom makes a killer lemon meringue pie,” Kari said, “a staple in my household as a kid.”
Amy said she thinks the pie is the breakout recipe of the book so far, more like an ice cream cake with the flavor of lemon.
“The crust is like any bar bottom, with a lemon custard silk filling, like a French silk pie," she said.
It wasn’t easy for Amy to get the recipe just the way she wanted it.
“It took a really long time to get it to not be icy and for it to be cream but not too hard,” she said. “It had to, like, have that perfect melting point.”
She tried many different things, describing the recipe writing process as almost like food science. She used a little bit of limoncello, she said, explaining the alcohol kept the bars from getting icy.
“I did this in multiple pans for my dad’s 70th birthday party years ago, and it was so good, people just went crazy for it,” Amy said, adding it worked well on a hot day. “It’s such a dense thing, it doesn’t melt real easily.”
During the KAXE Morning Show conversation, listeners texted in their questions.
Dick from Warba asked, “Amy, do you always try out a recipe before making it for company?”
She answered, “Not always. I always make something that I have made before, and I know will work. And I almost always also include something that's more experimental, because for me, I'm developing recipes, right? So, I have many iterations and many trials in my friends are my guinea pigs.
“I find that when I'm making up something and I'm thinking about the people that I'm making it for that. I get a little bit more creative.”
Barb texted in during the KAXE Morning Show as well. “I love reading through your cookbook, it’s such a fun connection as a vegan. There are many recipes I can use within this. I’m wondering if you would ever consider a vegetarian or vegan cookbook?”
Amy, whose cousins are the fourth generation to run Thielen Meats in Pierz, said she grew up eating a lot of meat. In her adulthood, she eats meatless meals often, but probably wouldn’t write an entirely vegetarian cookbook.
She expressed how glad she was to know that vegetarians and vegans get something from the cookbook.
“It’s such a bigger flavor. There’s so much more flavor than in starch,” she said.
Kari asked Amy about the format of Company.
“It’s a menu-style cookbook, which can sometimes be intimidating,” Amy replied. “There’s just not very many menu cookbooks out there and they’re kind of an old thing.”
Amy said she and her publisher realized why they had gone out of fashion, being hard to layout and needing so many more photographs.
“But I felt strongly about doing the menu cookbook because I feel actually like the real contact and messages I get from people, it’s often about how do you compose a menu.”
Some of the menus and recipes Amy included in Company:
- All You Can Eat Fish Fry – deep-fried sour cream walleye, garlic and coconut-scented rice, iceberg plate salad with green chile dressing, steamed and glazed white sweet potatoes and pavlova with winter citrus.
- Nordic Backcountry Ski Supper – sardines with lard and Parmesan on bran crispbread, yellow split pea soup with spareribs and smoked almond praline.
- Fourth of July – cilantro lime juleps, reformed dill dip with iced garden vegetables, home-ground burgers with hot-and-sauer pub cheese, milk corn and rhubarb-raspberry pie.
Thielen’s nationwide tour and launch of Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others continues with stops in South Carolina, North Dakota and Texas.