When writing about Molly Yeh, it’s not easy to know where to begin. Do you start with her bio?
A Chinese clarinetist father and Jewish “chocolatier-turned-homemaker-turned-school-social-worker” mother from NY raise two daughters in the Chicago suburbs. Molly, the younger daughter, devours Lunchables, adores Hello Kitty and goes to Jewish summer camp, all the while writing in her diary. She attends her father’s alma mater, Julliard, where she becomes a professional percussionist, starts a food blog and meets the man who will become her husband, a trombonist named Nick. She nicknames Nick “EggBoy” and together they move to Grand Forks, North Dakota, so he can work his family’s farm. In between being a food blogger, cookbook author and packer of farm lunches (who was recently listed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30), she continues to travel and discovers how to slow down and savor life’s pleasures far away from the big city.
Or do you simply start with her cookbook?
The introduction to Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from an Unlikely Life on a Farm opens with, “Hi! My name is Molly. I live on a farm in the upper Midwest with my husband, the Internet, 12 hens named Macaroni and a plump rooster named Tofu.” The first of the book’s four parts begins with a chapter entitled “The Suburbs,” which includes The Ideal Hole in the Middle (an egg cooked into a hole in a slice of bread) and My Everymorning Breakfast for the Summer, consisting primarily of Greek yogurt or labneh, Israeli salad, tahini, za’atar, ground sumac and bread, and ends with Scallion Pancakes and Maple Syrup Slaw. Subsequent chapters feature Shakshuka Couscous, Carrot Daikon Slaw, Cauliflower Shawarma Tacos, Chicken Pot Tot Hotdish, Italian Rainbow Cookie Salad, Coffee Halva and Funfetti Cake.
Either way you end up smiling.
Yeh (pronounced “Yay”) has a complicated relationship with hummus. The first time she mentions it in Molly on the Range, she explains the role hummus played in her early love life with Nick. (Hint: The story prominently features the words fart and butt.) If you skip over that part, you’ll find that the recipe begins with a reference to “that hummus farting nightmare.” Asked to name her husband’s favorite recipes from the book, Yeh immediately says shakshuka and hummus, proudly telling me that she has turned her Midwestern farmer into a “hummus snob.”
While she loves to smile and describes herself as a “happy, positive person,” Yeh can be serious, too. Exploring her views on family, music and Judaism brings out her thoughtful side.
She does not hesitate for a moment when asked who her heroes are: her parents and her husband. Her mom instilled both a passion for cooking, and a sense that you don’t need to color “in the lines.” In fact, Yeh says that when she was a child, her mom gave her blank paper rather than coloring books, hoping that she would use the freedom on the blank pages to create her own pictures rather than follow someone else’s lines. Yeh describes her culinary style as being a result of that freedom—to imagine what a dish could be, rather than re-create what someone else envisioned. Yeh calls her dad her musical hero, an “amazing hard worker” who doesn’t get stressed and does what he loves. Her husband likewise inspires her with his work ethic and his gentle encouragement of her own dreams.
Her tastes in music are as eclectic as her food. One of her all-time favorite pieces is Mahler’s Second Symphony. In addition to Mahler, she loves Bach, Stravinsky and Sia. Talking about musicians she admires, Yeh names composers George Crumb, Steve Reich, Nico Muhly, along with violinist Leila Josefowicz.
As a child, Yeh didn’t get a traditional Jewish education or become bat mitzvah. But she went to Jewish summer camp and has been to Israel twice. For her, Judaism is all about arguing and voicing strong opinions and values, especially an emphasis on family and hard work. And holidays. The smile and lighthearted side of her personality creeps back in, even over the phone, as she thinks about Purim. Hamantashen and a good party are definitely part of her Jewishness. Celebrating the High Holidays and Passover can be challenging; the former is at harvest time and the latter typically during spring planting season. Sometimes Molly and Nick mark the Jewish holidays with a meal while sitting on a tractor. Other times she goes back to the Chicago suburbs to celebrate with her parents.
Living in a place where there are few Jews makes Yeh appreciate the Jewish community that she took for granted when living in the Chicago suburbs and New York City. Her Jewish and Israeli food roots are deep and wide. She admires her mom and speaks wistfully of wanting to learn more about her own Hungarian Jewish roots. Her travels to Israel have had a profound impact on the way she approaches food as well as on the recipes she develops. The cookbooks Yeh uses most often are those of Israeli cookbook author Janna Gur.
No matter where your kitchen is, Molly Yeh wants to be there, encouraging you to enjoy her mom’s matzah brei and Jerusalem Bagel Dogs with harissa ketchup.