Kristine M. Kierzek
When Maren Ellingboe King inherited her grandmother’s collection of recipes, it launched her into an exploration of her food roots. What she found was a trove of Midwestern recipes and techniques that were often overlooked.
In fact, her own trajectory was one of leaving these things behind, going from Minnesota and her first restaurant job in Hudson, Wis., to New York and a role at Food & Wine magazine, then to California.
It took her grandmother’s handwritten recipe collection, a pandemic and rising food costs for her to clearly see the region’s relevance through recipes.
The Minnesota native puts all of it on display, presenting what she considers a modern Midwest “canon” in her first cookbook, “Fresh Midwest: Modern Recipes from the Heartland” (Countryman Press) in stores Sept. 20. King shows the breadth of Scandinavian and Norwegian influence on Midwestern kitchens, reaching deep into the upper Midwest regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
Recipes range from almond kringle, wild rice pancakes, cardamom buns, and brown butter zucchini bread to hotdish that skips the canned soup, Norwegian fondue, lefse, rhubarb custard pie and even a lingonberry old-fashioned utilizing Ikea jam. There’s also the throwback staple, Jell-O salad, though here it is prepared with pomegranate for an update. It is a sprinkling of her Scandinavian and Minnesota roots with modern Midwestern influences.
King lives in Minneapolis with her husband and son.
Question: What’s your background? How did you get into the food world and writing a cookbook?
Answer: I grew up in a town outside of St. Paul and went to school in Minneapolis. I first started working in a family-owned bakery in high school. My senior project was working as a line cook in Hudson, Wis. at the San Pedro Cafe. At the end of that project, they offered me a job. That was my first professional job cooking. I went to college on the East Coast, came back every summer and kept that job. When I graduated from college I moved to New York and got a job at Food & Wine magazine …
My husband and I moved to the Bay Area, where he is from, in 2015. There I worked on a number of different projects. … The Bay Area is really wonderful, but we were far from our friends. We decided to move back to Minneapolis. We arrived September 2020. I got a cookbook deal that December, turned it in September 2021. My son was born 10 days later.
Q: This is your first cookbook. How long was this idea in the works?
A: I would say about five years. I had inherited an archive of recipes that were my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s. There were hundreds of index cards, many handwritten recipes, some clipped from newspapers. I had looked through them and cooked a few things when I got the recipes, but the idea really came about when I attended the IACP culinary conference about five years ago. I went to seminars on writing cookbooks. Wow, this is something I could do. … I ended up getting the deal with Countryman (Press) a few months later.
Q: How did you research and gather recipes for this book?
A: I went through the archive a number of times. I feel like every Midwestern family has this treasure trove of many types of Jell-O salad to the classic hot dish with green beans and hamburger and crispy onions on top, and tons of different cake and cookie recipes and everything in between.
It was drawing on those nostalgic dishes I had as a kid, but didn’t find myself cooking on a daily basis for myself and my husband. Then the inspiration was taking these nostalgic recipes but not using cream of mushroom soup or those other shortcuts. It was having it reflect how I eat now with more fresh produce, more herbs, more acidity and heat. So taking a hotdish recipe but using homemade Bechamel sauce and using roasted squash instead of canned vegetables. It was trying to meld these comforting and hearty Midwestern dishes and bring them into the modern era.
Q: What’s one recipe you want to introduce to people outside the Midwest?
A: Lefse is the first thing that comes to mind. That’s such a part of my family’s holiday gatherings. My cousin and aunt are really expert lefse makers. They would always make it for Christmas, Easter and also Thanksgiving…
It is such a unique Scandinavian food. Most people if you’ve never been to Scandinavia or grew up in the Midwest you don’t know what it is, and it takes such practice. It’s so delicate. The dough is very different. Working with a potato-based dough is challenging. … It is something that should be made with multiple people, because of all the steps involved. You roll it out, you cook it individually, and you have to have somebody to flip it.
I made it with my mom and when I was growing up. It was something we always had with butter and sugar. In my family it was a point of contention if you had brown or white sugar.
Q: Who are the cooks you’re aiming for with this book?
A: I would say a range. There are definitely some more challenging recipes that would appeal to somebody who has a fair amount of cooking experience. There are also recipes that somebody who has barely cooked before would be able to do.
I think about the pickling recipes. … When I was going through all these recipes there were so many preserving recipes. I also love pickles, so that was something I loved seeing. Canning can be very intimidating, but I don’t think people realize how simple quick pickling can be. You don’t have to go through the water bath and all that. The quick refrigerator pickles, that’s the recipe I have probably made the most from the cookbook. It’s so easy.
Q: In the past, recipes were typically handed down through families and friends, as your grandmother did with her recipe cards. Social media has shifted the conversation. What have you learned pulling these recipes together?
A: Through cooking these old recipes it really felt like such a personal experience. My great-grandmother Judith died when I was 3. My grandmother Veola died when I was 16. My mom’s mom, Nancy, is still alive and cooking all the time. I had heard many stories about my great-grandmother, but she wasn’t someone I had any memory of, so looking at her handwriting and cooking these recipes felt like a way to get to know her …
I feel like Midwestern food, not that it was written off, but it is not necessarily something that was valued.
Q: So what is your goal for Midwestern food with this book? Why put it in the spotlight?
A: I am trying to bring some awareness to Midwestern food, which I feel has been kind of overlooked in the whole American food movement.
Also, I want people to have fun with it. It is not necessarily a serious food. There are all these crazy Jell-O salads and hot dish combinations. It’s something people can really enjoy.
Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or Wisconsin natives, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or visiting chefs. To suggest individuals to profile, email [email protected]
More:Cole Ersel, a veteran of Milwaukee kitchens and operator of Milkweed Collective, likes going back to his German roots
More:School ‘wasn’t in the cards,’ so he learned on the job and became executive chef at Grand Geneva