Old recipes, new flavors: Cookbook author, food blogger blends diverse cultures
EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - Molly Yeh thought she knew everything about food-she'd lived for years in New York City, after all, where every conceivable type of cuisine is readily available.But that experience, along with her upbringing in Chicago a...
EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - Molly Yeh thought she knew everything about food-she'd lived for years in New York City, after all, where every conceivable type of cuisine is readily available.
But that experience, along with her upbringing in Chicago as the daughter of a Chinese father and Jewish mother with Eastern European familial roots, didn't include exposure to lefse or the traditional "hot dish."
"Those foods were new to me," said the 27-year-old Yeh, who moved from New York to Grand Forks in 2013.
She is becoming widely known as the writer of a food blog, "my name is yeh," and, most recently, as a cookbook author.
Her book, "Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from an Unlikely Life on a Farm," is newly released by Rodale, Inc., a publisher of health and wellness magazines, books and digital properties.
The book has been featured in Cooking Light, Midwest Living and Rodale's Organic Life magazines.
It's not only a cookbook, though, it's Yeh's story so far-growing up and leaving home to attend Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where she met a quiet trombonist, of Norwegian heritage, from northern Minnesota. In 2014, she married that trombonist, Nick Hagen, a fifth-generation farmer; they live on the family farm north of East Grand Forks.
Yeh's enthusiasm for food can't be fit into a single category. She is as excited about malabi, a Middle Eastern milk custard, as she is about Jell-O, another food that was new to her.
"I am really fascinated by Jell-O salad and cookie salad," she said.
Yeh has put her own spin on traditional favorites. She has tweaked some of her in-laws' hot dish recipes, experimenting with alternative, often healthier, ingredients such as quinoa.
"I like to make everything from scratch," she said, which inspires her to replace canned, creamed soups with coconut milk or homemade bechamel.
She's even tried making tater tots from scratch-picture "a pile of shredded potatoes," she said-but she admits a preference for the store-bought kind.
In her cookbook, Yeh delights readers with anecdotes about growing up as a consummate picky eater with a "close-minded" attitude about food preferences.
"For the first 11 or 12 years of my life, the only food that made it into my belly were white, orange or brown. (Cheese, bread, matzo ball, etc.)," she wrote.
"While my diet might not have been the healthiest at times, my mom saw a bigger picture that resulted in me having an excited relationship with food. The fact that she never forced me to eat things like broccoli meant that when I finally really came around to it ... I could approach it with a clean, excitable slate, free of any haunting childhood memories."
Yeh's revelations about getting to know Nick reveal the striking contrast in their backgrounds. Some are laugh-out-loud funny.
She discovered that Nick, whom she dubbed "Eggboy" for his love of eggs, knew as much about schnitzel, tahini and labneh as she knew about lefse, lutefisk and combines.
"It's amazing to think how sheltered (about food) we were," Nick said. "I did not eat Brussels sprouts until Molly came along-and that's not even an unusual food."
Nick thought he knew what hummus was until he sampled Molly's version.
"Here's Molly soaking chickpeas overnight and blending the heck out of them," said Nick who no longer buys it.
"Now Nick is like this hummus snob," Yeh said.
Roots of the book
For the past seven years, Yeh has been writing a twice-weekly blog that grew out of a "life diary, scrapbook type of thing" to share thoughts with family and friends.
The blog drew increased attention from readers, including an editor at Rodale who recognized that Yeh's blog was becoming more than a hobby-she was developing a social media following; her Instagram account had grown to about 188,000 followers.
The editor connected Yeh with an agent who helped her pitch her cookbook to publishers. Yeh met with about a dozen publishers before an agreement with Rodale was inked.
"The publishers were curious about my moving from city to farm," she said. "Farm life is really fascinating for people right now. That, and people are wanting to know where their food is coming from."
Yeh was just as fascinated.
"The world of publishing was new to me-all these things, the process," she said. "It's a wild process."
Yeh spent many months writing the book, "working back and forth with editors on revisions," she said. She took the majority of the photos.
Promoting the book
Since early October, book promotion trips have taken her far and wide-most recently to California where she visited Pinterest and Twitter headquarters and attended a Jewish Book Fair.
She also appeared on Hallmark Channel's "Home and Family" show, demonstrating how to make lefse.
She's been to New York, Minneapolis, Chicago and Fargo, and she plans to go to Germany and possibly Canada next year, she said.
Yeh has been impressed by readers she's met at book-signing events.
"Some say they've read the book from cover to cover, and that's the first time they've done that. That makes me happy."
"Molly takes it all in stride," said Roxanne Hagen, Molly's mother-in-law. "She's the most level-headed young lady. It's been fun to see her evolve into being so comfortable in front of the camera."
Yeh's recipes and tips on baking-such as the traditional Jewish egg bread, challah-garner the most responses from readers, she said. "On my blog, baking is my primary focus. But I love cooking, too."
She attributes the success of her blog, and now her cookbook, to the current affinity for blending cultural influences in food. For example, she incorporates a favorite Chinese ingredient, scallions, into challah in her recipe for Scallion Pancake Challah.
"Mixed heritages and different influences are more common now," she said. "It's not just one background."
Transitioning to farm life
After graduating from Juilliard and living a few years in New York, she and Nick were eager to get back to the Midwest.
"The idea of moving from the city came before moving to the farm," she said. She and Nick had tired of New York and wanted to be closer to family in the Midwest-even if "Midwest" meant something different to each.
But Yeh never expected to become a farmer's wife.
"It's not what I ever planned or envisioned even five years ago," she said with an ever-present smile that lights up the room. After living in over-stimulating New York City, "I was ready for it; I love the quality of life here."
When she visited in the summer of 2013, "I loved it," she said. "Suddenly it just felt easy-driving in a car with no traffic, pushing a big cart through a grocery store. The quality of life hit me immediately."
Being from midwestern Chicago, she found a lot of things were familiar in East Grand Forks but different, such as the culture centered on hunting and the sense of community.
She's learned that "you're not a good Minnesotan if you don't have a freezer full of rhubarb."
She has fully embraced farm life. She helps to tend an ample garden and has added a flock of chickens that keep her well-supplied with fresh eggs.
"She said, 'We're moving to a farm; we have to have chickens,'" Nick remembered.
Yeh seems more than a little charmed by the decades-old cookbooks she's come across since moving into the house where her husband's grandparents, Cliff and Marie Hagen, lived for many years. Both are deceased.
Leafing through books, she said, "on any page, you find recipes that call for canned tomato soup or canned cream soup."
In cookbooks that date to the Great Depression she marvels at recipes that call for "nine cents worth of cardamom."
Yeh is happy to see her new book take its place in the bookshelves alongside the many well-worn cookbooks Marie collected over time.
"It's my contribution to the community, and those things that go way back," she said.
"It's cool to think 100 years in the future somebody will have my cookbook. They'll say, 'Wow, look what they ate back then. Let's do our own take on it now.'
"And who knows what they will be."