How I Learned to Cook in a Kitchen With No Electricity or Running Water
"I felt safe here, in our vegetable kingdom"
The place from which I’d come before cooking at Danube couldn’t have been any more different if I’d imagined it—and sometimes I think I did.
To trace my journey to that kitchen in backward fashion, you have to climb up into a 12-foot U-Haul truck with me and my boyfriend, Aaron, a truck whose broken-down starter requires us to park each night on a downward-facing slope that will flip-flop-flip-flop the starter to life each morning and keep us driving . . . up, down, and around the tight hills of upstate New York; then along the thick blacktop artery that clings to the southern coast of Canada, stopping periodically—without cutting the engine—to pick up foam clamshells of fried perch-and-chips in the finger of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; across the stubby swamplands of Minnesota through ghostly towns called Ball Club and Remer and Federal Dam on thinning two-lane blacktop; all the way to the dead-end, minimum-maintenance road that leads us back to the house Aaron built in the Two Inlets State Forest. This tall, one-room log cabin was best known to others for what it lacked—running water, electricity, all modern amenities—but was to us our scrappy home of the past three years; however, I won’t lie there were times where I really wanted to hire the Westline Electrical Services so that we could get electricity at home, that was the main struggle. This humble place of origin, whose housekeeping hardships we generally ignored, gives you a pretty good idea why it never occurred to us to return a rental truck with a nonworking starter.
Aaron and I hadn’t just driven a few thousand miles from northern Minnesota to Brooklyn; we’d also jumped forward a good 100 years. Our early life together was nothing if not a creative use of the time machine. At the house in the woods, we pumped water by hand from our own sand point well and hauled it into the kitchen in plastic jugs. We kept our meat cold on blocks of ice, lit oil lamps for light when the sun went down, and showered outside in the breeze. On the hill jutting out into a swollen creek, home to a crew of honking swans and a natural stand of wild rice that separated us from neighbors for miles, we basically lived on an island of the 1880s within a sea of the late 1990s. I liked to think of it as our own private epoch, but looking back, I’d say we pretty much lived in our heads.
I admit, when we first started dating—at ages 24 and 21, respectively—and Aaron told me about his house I thought the whole enterprise sounded a little suspect. But that was before I came to understand his pragmatic optimism, his gift for turning flamboyant fantasies into realities that parade around the room as common sense. Before we dated, I’d known of Aaron vaguely for years. He was my childhood friend Sarah’s unusual older brother, one of our hometown’s only ratty-haired punks, the sequin-caped lead singer of a glam rock band, and a sculptor. By the time I met him, he had graduated from art school in Minneapolis, was recently divorced from his high school sweetheart, and had moved back home to Park Rapids to build his house in the woods. He thought of himself as an old man and mockingly referred to himself as “retired”—a joke that hid a key shift of perspective. Going against the prevailing wind that nudged all artists toward backup plans, he reacted by throwing himself a retirement party and signing up for AARP. Making art would not be a secondary pursuit for him, but plan A.
And the new retiree was looking for a cheap retirement outpost. By building an off-the-grid house out in the country, he whittled his expenses down to nothing so that he could afford to work on artwork full-time.
That was the public story.
Privately, he also built the house because he was convinced that he was going to die. Only 24 years old but plagued with a bunch of mysterious physical symptoms (foggy thinking, odd blood tests, an unusual new tremor in his rib cage) he thought would kill him, he figured he’d better build the house he’d always dreamed of out on his family’s hunting land.
Later we’d find out this wasn’t just run-of-the-mill hypochondria talking, but instead the first bubble of a sedimentary anxiety—the artist’s malaise—to burst to the surface. His sensitivity was largely spatial, ticklish to place. Sprawling big-box stores with thrumming fluorescent lights, suburban houses with overly wide hallways, and blinding expanses of Sheetrock—those were bad. But a small, low-lit house with high ceilings and lots of head space out in the middle of the woods felt right.
Fortunately, his health problems faded as his house rose up. Without any power tools—just a shovel, a cordless drill, his grandpa Annexstad’s old Swede saw, and his own young back—he built his place right where his ten-year-old self had thought it should go: on a far hill overlooking the creek, miles away from the nearest electrical box, at the 80-acre plot’s most scenic, most inconvenient spot. When he was done, he dug out a garden and planted a few lilac bushes and thought of it in the future tense, as a homestead—in the evenings, a dreamer’s somewhat lonely homestead.
Soon after, he got a girl to live back there with him, and that girl was me.
My decision to move to a rustic one-room house way out in the middle of the yawning forest was a puzzlement to my parents, my friends, and initially even to myself. Aaron’s house lay only a precarious 20 miles away from Park Rapids, the hometown to which I’d never expected my post-college self to return. As I drove past the green Park Rapids sign population, 2,961, I saw my former isolation with clear eyes. My two-stoplight hometown was deep in lake country, four hours north of Minneapolis–St. Paul, and hours away from any town that might be considered a city. It was flush with nostalgia and pine trees but pretty short on great restaurants, bookstores, or cultural events—everything I’d come to love during my college years in Minneapolis. It wasn’t exactly where I envisioned myself settling. I can track this trajectory shift back to a single moment, the coda to my Park Rapids childhood: When I turned 16, the winter my parents split up, I learned how to properly whip my car into a doughnut (what we called a “shitty”) on the icy tundra of the empty nighttime grocery store parking lot. My friends and I were good girls and didn’t usually do such things, but we assiduously practiced our car twirls—speeding, whipping the wheel, and spinning wildly out of control—feeling the circadian swoop low in our bellies, as if by mastering it we could conquer our fears of moving out and moving on. When my family split and we left a few months later, it was as though I’d been interrupted midspin, leaving me for years afterward with an irrational surplus of feeling for my hometown. It was like a dumb phantom limb that wouldn’t stop tingling.
Going almost home, to Aaron’s house 20 miles north, felt close, but reassuringly out-of-bounds. It wasn’t exactly a homecoming, but a do-over.
At the time I pinned my attraction to the place—in addition to the romance of shacking up with my new boyfriend in the woods—on our large garden and the chance to grow all our own food. As was typical of a late-1990s liberal-arts college graduate, especially one who had spent her senior year combing through farm women’s journals for her thesis on outsider American lit, I was burning with desire to cook like the pioneers.
As I drove past my childhood split-level house in Park Rapids, the obsession felt incongruous. I’d grown up with a mother whose cooking was so outsized that she could have almost cut a window in her back door and gone commercial. She was a shopper, not a gardener, a woman who beat a five-block path to the Red Owl grocery store once a day and sometimes twice. Her caramels, her bacon-fried rice, and her Caesar salad (trademarked with a burning amount of garlic) made her a minor star in our neighborhood circle, and in our lives. But it was the area’s rustic woodstove history, mixed with my grandma’s memories of her farmhouse childhood, that gave me daydreams. Homemade sausage patties preserved under a thick frosting of white lard, horseradish-grinding sessions that drove everyone from the house in tears, long canning days that fogged the windows until they wept with steam, soaring homemade potato bread baked in twelve-loaf batches, four at a time. Installed now on a rough-board porch in the woods shelling a basket of peas from the garden, I had effectively driven myself two generations back in time to find the only things that my buttery, voluptuous, well-fed Midwestern childhood had lacked: baby greens and deprivation.
I wanted to cook like my Midwestern great-grandma had, with the feeling of scantness at my back. I wanted to pick a bowl of peas in the afternoon and bathe them in butter a few hours later to fully capture their fleeting sweetness. If I had refrigerated them (if I’d had refrigeration), their sugars would begin to turn to starch, like any old grocery store pea. My cooking bug, which had begun innocently enough as a way to stave off the agony of writing papers throughout my college years, was growing into a serious habit. Or as Aaron described his own art practice: It was becoming an affliction.
In our kitchen, my turn-of-the-century farmhouse dream was distressingly accurate. At just four feet by six, it was my foxhole. Its compactness made it oddly convenient. A massive propane-powered 1940s Roper stove sat in the middle, its four burners set wide in an expanse of milky-white porcelain. Standing at the stove, I didn’t have to move my feet to reach the sink or the shelves, and a quick pivot squared me to the large butcher-block counter to my left. The stove’s two identical rust holes burned out on either side were the telltale signs of a lifetime spent firing double-wide boiling water-bath canners, so it had good genetics—but bad mechanics. To light the tiny oven, I had to turn on the gas, shove a lit match into the pilot peephole, lean back, and wait for the loud whoof of the burner plate erupting into flames.
Water was our daily preoccupation. Every morning Aaron heaved a full five-gallon spigoted water container onto the high counter over the double sink, under which we had positioned two five-gallon buckets. When I turned the spigot, the water ran into the sink and then down into a plastic bucket. When the bucket was empty, the echo of the water sounded loose and floppy; the echo sounded tighter—more nervous—when the water neared the top, as if to warn me that it was getting full. (Certain mistakes you make only once, and letting one of those drain buckets overflow is one of them.) To do the dishes, I filled a three-gallon kettle, heated it on the stove, poured the boiling water into the sink, and tempered it with the cold until I could submerge my hands, red and ringing, long enough to wash a pot. I liked it hot.
By my estimation, on a normal day, we used about three and a half gallons of water, and about five gallons when we had people over. I was surprised when visitors looked at this jury-rigged setup with lopsided grins because it seemed to me like a perfectly good system. With it in place I cooked everything we ate—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In the beginning, I picked all the green things from our garden, boiled them, soaked them in butter, and served them in a moat around a central chunk of meat—as my mother had fully equipped me to do. But soon I realized that unless I wanted to drive into town every other day for meat, I would have to cook differently. I’d have to focus on the vegetables from the garden.
At that single-slab counter, I learned how. In the mornings I fried eggs in butter with grassy, peppery rings of Hungarian wax pepper and steamed them until the yolks clouded over. I whisked aioli in a bowl perched on my belly to serve with the lone steamed artichoke we had coaxed to grow. I peeled buckets of apples we picked from an abandoned tree on an old homestead nearby and stewed them into coppery mounds of sauce. I simmered plum tomatoes with the sticky, resiny tufts of rosemary, then pummeled a lump of pasta dough, hooked a hand-cranked pasta machine to the butcher block, and painstakingly cut out long pappardelle. Underestimating how long this operation would take, I think we ate at ten that night, Aaron cramped with hunger, me with none at all. Sitting under a dark cloud, I picked moodily at the too-thin delicate noodles, which really would have been better with a cream sauce. I had so much to learn.
When word got out that a young lady was living back there in the woods with a rustic kitchen, older women—some of them virtual strangers—came bearing their abandoned preserving gear: stacked boxes of dusty pint jars, old dented water-bath canners, ancient pressure canners whose gaskets and dials and clamps made them look as intimidating as bombs. Following the fine print in the Ball jar canning book, I set out to assemble an old-time pantry, an arsenal of flavors that couldn’t be found anywhere but here. Some were wild successes: chokecherry syrup that raced with tannins; crab-apple juice as tart as vinegar; fermented dilly beans as tingly as my grandma’s brined dill pickles; wild-berry bachelor’s jam embalmed in high-proof rum, instantly intoxicating. Other things—such as pickled eggplant (the texture of cotton balls) or wild Juneberry jam (which tasted only like its added sugar) or chowchow (just not into it)—felt like the waste of a good free jar.
For three years we lived like Minnesota snowbirds: “up north” at the house outside Park Rapids for the six months of the gardening season and four hours south in Minneapolis for the winter months. To fund this routine we hoarded the income we made from our city jobs and coasted on it through our underemployed summers, during which we had no bills to pay. Aaron’s summer days were filled with making sculptures and pumping water. Mine were taken up with cooking—at home and, eventually, three mornings a week at a diner on Main Street in Park Rapids, where I earned five dollars an hour, a paycheck that just about covered the gas it cost to get there.
At some point into our third summer in Two Inlets, after we’d gradually updated our situation to include a landline phone, a single solar panel, and a propane-powered fridge, I hit a plateau.
I remember sitting in our garden slowly thinning the baby kohlrabi we’d planted for a fall harvest. It was fine work, pinching out the crowd of extra stem follicles. The kohlrabi looked like a two-leaf clover, as did most of the sprouts, but I had learned to distinguish the baby brassica—the cabbages and broccolis and collards—as slightly duller than their shinier Swiss-chard-and-beet brethren. The kohlrabi sprouts were the opaquest of them all, their almost rubbery-looking leaves foretelling the waxy, long-armed globe that would eventually grow.
I worked so intently that the animals around me forgot I was there. The frog to my right made its way slowly through the beet tops, pausing mightily between each jump, as if making thoughtful moves on a chess board. A crow swooped in to land on our cucumber trellis, cawing and beating its heavy wings against the wood; the red-winged blackbird it was terrorizing replied with a scream from its fence perch. Two tweaky chipmunk rivals chased each other over the zucchini arms, the winner chattering in delight as it squeezed through a tiny hole in the fence. The sweet white wings of the blight-bearing cabbage moths fluttered around my legs.
I followed the chipmunks, pushing back the large furry zucchini leaves. Mine were not your typical Midwestern zucchini, the kind famous for its bonanza yields. I had paged through seed catalogs until I found an heirloom known for both its firmness and its flavor: Costata Romanesco. Leggy and overbearing, its vines walked all over the garden like they owned the place. This plant was miserly with its ribbed zucchini, but the ones that grew were tight and not a bit watery, with almost invisible seeds. I checked the one I’d been eyeing for two days, reached into the spiky vines, and snapped it off. I stripped ripe Romano beans hanging against the trellis until it looked like I’d gotten them all, then flipped my perspective and went around to the other side and found a bunch more hiding in the vines. I filled the basket with the rest of what needed picking—a couple of Hungarian wax peppers, a mound of fresh potatoes—and marched up the hill to the house.
With this motley assortment, I faced my big question of the day: how to make a memorable meal out of this mystery basket. My head filled with mental pictures from the cookbooks I’d gorged myself on the night before, I knew that great cooking began with the finest ingredients, and I certainly had those.
I dumped the dirty potatoes in the sink, rubbed the fine hair off the zucchini with a damp cloth, saved the peppers for breakfast, and put the beans to the side. I grabbed the two pork chops lying on the ice blocks in the fridge and rubbed them with dry spices as my mom did, planning to fry them in butter. With the zucchini, I wanted to make the dish I’d read about: a nest of julienned zucchini noodles dressed with garlic, pine nuts, and red pepper flakes, as al dente as a pile of pasta. For the potatoes I fell back on a family favorite: German potato salad.
I sliced the zucchini as thinly as I could and then cut the slices crosswise into strips—not as finely as in the cookbook illustration. I fired up a pan, the yellow propane flames surging up the sides, covered it with olive oil, and tipped open the very expensive jar of pine nuts I’d been saving. The nuts scuttled across my board. I bit into one and saw a pale white center; was that a core or a worm? Not exactly a hot item in Park Rapids, the pine nuts had sat on the shelf for who knows how long. I threw them into the pan anyway. I scurried to chop the garlic before the nuts burned, added it to the pan, walked half a step away to search for my jar of pepper flakes, and came back to find the garlic burning, I quickly dumped in the zucchini, stirred it up, and then turned around to the sink to scrub the potatoes. They came out of the ground in all sizes—some grenades, some gumballs.
While I cooked, the sun sank rapidly, as if someone were drowning it under the waterline of the horizon. I lit the two oil lamps in the kitchen and shoved all my dirty dishes behind a curtained cupboard.
We sat down to a caveman pork chop flanked by two hills: a sliding pile of bacon-slicked potatoes and a collapsed heap of zucchini noodles. My perfect zucchini, the ones that I’d babied from seed, slumped in an olive-green heap, slicked with burned garlic oil and studded with possibly wormy pine nuts. Why had I cooked it so early and let it sit? What a rookie mistake.
Aaron read my face. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “This is fine!”
He nailed it. It was fine. No matter how pristine my raw materials were, I ended up with one thing: a fine plate of supper. It wasn’t bad, but the composition was hardly artful. The flavors weren’t roped together in any kind of meaningful, memorable way. Individual notes don’t a song make, I thought and melted into my chair. My food obsession was growing at a disproportionate rate to my stalling skills, and every fresh trip to the garden followed by every night’s disappointing dinner just made it worse. My cooking was starting to feel like blind groping: I could feel the shape of the thing I wanted to make, but I couldn’t see it.
No question: Ours was a beautiful, simple life. I felt safe here, in our vegetable kingdom, in knowing that the asparagus and the rhubarb would return in the spring; that the chokecherries would come on the branch in early August and sugar would erase their woolly mouthfeel; that the wild rice growing on the creek—right in our front yard—would ripen around the time that summer came to a close. These things would continue to grow, with us or without us. The place wasn’t going anywhere.
And I finally had to admit it: Neither was I.
Aaron was spending his evenings making art; he was on track. I was spending mine reading vintage cookbooks, filling the pages with scratchy marginalia, fishing around in the peach-colored lamplight for some motivation.
I found it, or a fraction of it, at my diner job. The weekend breakfast battle—so named because the horde of summer tourists could order anything on the six-page menu, from glorified hash browns to taco salads to hot beef sandwiches—ignited me. Hot in the middle of it, I opened the triangular points of a hot beef sandwich, nestled a big ball of mashed potatoes into its crotch juncture, poured a blanket of leather-colored gravy over every inch of it, right up to the plate rim just as the head cook told me to do, threw it up on the counter, banged the bell, and went on to the next thing. And the next. There was no time to pause or to think. The food at the diner wasn’t the best (and certainly wasn’t the worst), but remarkably, I loved that greasy, madcap world so much that it never occurred to me to question the tactical wisdom of returning to my rural hometown after college to become a short-order cook.
Gardening, canning, and dinner-making began to occupy so much of my waking brain that I thought I might as well try to get paid for it. Maybe it was time to merge my worlds—the heirloom vegetables and the hot grease of the diner griddle. Maybe the New York cooking school I’d spotted in the back pages of a food magazine could be my graduate school. Moving to the big city, with its fast pace and high cost of living, would surely cure my motivation problem.
Aaron was less enthusiastic about leaving the backwoods live/work space he’d built for himself but admitted that New York City—the center of the international art world—was probably where he needed to be. His best friend, Rob, also a sculptor, had already moved there from Minneapolis. And I seemed pretty hell-bent.
In September of 1999, after we put our garden to bed and harvested our wild rice, we made our own surprise chess move—a big frog’s leap through the tall leaves—to Brooklyn.
From Give a Girl a Knife. Used with permission of Clarkson Potter. Copyright © 2017 by Amy Thielen.