From Juilliard to rural Minnesota: Molly Yeh's unlikely culinary path

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Molly Yeh (Photo: Chantell Quernemoen)

How does a Juilliard-trained musician end up writing a cookbook from her farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border? David Leite asks Molly Yeh all about it (and gets the recipe for Fried Cheesy Pickles).

David Leite:I want to start off by talking about this journey that you have taken. You were a Juilliard-trained timpanist living in New York, and now you are the farm wife married to Eggboy [Ed. note: her husband Nick] on his family's farm, raising sugar beets, all the way out in Minnesota. How does one go from there to here?

Molly Yeh: I didn't mean for it to happen. I did not wake up one day and say, "Oh, I think I'd like to move out to a sugar beet farm in Minnesota." It all happened organically. I met my husband at Juilliard. He's a trombonist, and we fell in love and decided to leave New York and go to his farm. It fell into place. I have friends who talk to me, and they say, "Oh, we thought that you would have been in New York until you were 100. You're such a New Yorker."  

But after a few years of going hard in the city and taking advantage of everything that the city has to offer, I was ready to be back in the Midwest, where I'm from originally. I was ready to have my own space and ready to have nothing else to do but sit in a kitchen and bake cakes all day, and then it happened. When we were ready to leave New York, Nick's dad said, "What should I plan for with the future of the farm? Should we make arrangements so that, even if you don't come back and farm, the farm will stay in the family? Or are you going to come back? Because if you're going to come back, the time is now to do it."

We went to go visit, and I loved it. I loved how flat the land was and how open the skies were, and I told Nick, "I'm moving back here whether you're with me or not."

DL: When did your journey snake away from music and into food? That happened in New York.

MY: That also happened very naturally. I was studying at Juilliard, and one of my teachers -- his name is Gordon Gottlieb -- is super into food, and he would come to my lessons with stories. He would tell me about the civet cat coffee that he had just had, which is made from the beans that the cats poop out.

He'd tell me about Momofuku Ko and how difficult it was to get a reservation, and about the Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger, and all of these things. After my snare drum lessons, I would just take all my work study money, go downtown, and buy a Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger, just to get to know the restaurant scene in New York.

It was also around that time that blogs started becoming more popular, and I've always kept a diary. My blog was a very natural transition for me. I brought my diary to the internet and was able to add pictures to it.

DL: Now there's the cookbook, Molly on the Range, which is beautiful. It has a very interesting structure, with essays, recipes, and these deeply personal accounts of your life. It's also a very democratic book. It blends different cultures and different kinds of food. It's not highbrow or lowbrow; it's all-brow. Talk a little bit about how you got the idea to use some of the flow charts -- for instance, for mac and cheese or the Venn diagrams for Magic Sesame Sauce. I think it breaks every rule of cookbook cookery or cookbook cookbookery, yet it really works.

MY: I'm glad that, in the end, it did work, because there was a little while when I was trying to scribble down the macaroni and cheese flow chart from my Illustrator, and I can barely hold a pencil these days. With typing on the phone and on the computer, it's so hard to draw out.

It's how I cook though. It's how I think about things. I look at my pantry, and what do I have? What sorts of equations can I follow in order to get a risotto or get a macaroni and cheese that's using what I have in my pantry? My mom was the type of mom that never let me have coloring books with lines. I always had blank pages, and I had to draw my own pictures. I'm used to not having any sort of training wheels on and not feeling like I have to stick to one traditional format. I just want to have fun with it, and I hope that people have fun with the recipes.

DL: I think they will. Let's talk about a section in the book called "Snacks and Celebration." There are some unusual dishes in there, such as Jerusalem Bagel Dogs, Asian Scotch Eggs, and Fried Cheesy Pickles. Where do the inspirations for these foods, these blendings come from? Take me through the Fried Cheesy Pickles, because when I looked at that, I thought, "I have to make this damn recipe."

MY: They're so good, and be careful when you make them. Invite your friends over so that you don't eat them all, because that will happen if you're not careful.

It's all different sources of inspiration. The Fried Cheesy Pickles -- that is the quintessential late-night food in Grand Forks, North Dakota. You go to the Toasted Frog, you get a gin and tonic, and you get Fried Cheesy Pickles. I looked at them and I said, "These would be so much fun to make!" It's just egg roll wrappers, cheese, and pickles, and you dip them in Sriracha ranch. It's so simple, but it's so good. The Asian Scotch Eggs were actually inspired by a restaurant in Boston called Myers and Chang, and they're brilliant. It's just pot-sticker filling around a soft-boiled egg, and fried. You can't go wrong.

The inspiration for these comes from traveling, from keeping my eyes out to finding things on menus that are a little bit quirky and different that I could maybe recreate at home, because I'm kind of out in the middle of nowhere. I can't get pizza delivery, so I'm forced to make everything myself.

Fried Cheesy Pickles
Fried Cheesy Pickles

From This Episode: 
Breeding a Better Apple
Published: 
October 12th, 2016

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