Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Amy Iler and JJ Gordon are the first to proclaim that they aren’t fancy professional chefs — not the kind of kitchen artistes who create fine cuisine in the kitchens of five-star restaurants. But they do love food, both cooking it and eating it.
“It’s fun to find new recipes, but remember that food is fuel,” advises Amy, the senior host of KFGO Radio’s top-rated noon-time program “It Takes Two.” “Sometimes you just want to get something that tastes good on the table — something your family will eat. What people want is something that’s easy, that’s cost-efficient, that’s delicious … and that keeps everyone happy.”
Food is one of the staples of the talk show Amy and on-air partner JJ Gordon host from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily on the Mighty 790 and its broadcast alter ego, 104.7 FM. Their program features all kinds of topics, from an authority on America’s first ladies to comedian Louie Anderson, and from professional ax throwers to the story of the rest of the cities named Fargo. And then there’s the story of Widman’s Candy and its famous Chippers and the folk tradition of predicting precipitation with an onion calendar.
They model their food talk on neither Martha Steward nor Julia Child. Last week, for example, they carried on at length about egg salad, both classic and the special variant that JJ (who hates mayonnaise and mustard) pulled together with yogurt and mascarpone.
Now the popular pair of not-quite-40-year-olds will be sharing their down-to-earth takes on popular local classics in the Extra. In this week’s edition, they introduce their weekly concoctions in a new column they’re calling “From the Kitchens of Amy and JJ,” with a tip of the hat to the imprint on the vintage recipe cards on which grandmas and aunties jotted down family favorites.
They’re starting out with what may be the quintessential delicacy of Minnesota and North Dakota: Tater Tot Hot Dish. In coming weeks, they plan to draw on their own favorites as well as listeners’ recipes chosen for their annual KFGO Listener Cookbooks, including the upcoming 2022 edition. (Voting is wrapping up next week for the local charity that will receive the proceeds of the next volume, for which they request only a freewill donation. To vote for your favorite, go to https://kfgo.com/cookbook-charity/.)
Genial Fargo-bred JJ, a veteran comic who still sometimes performs with the Linebenders comedy troupe, says he has cooked since he was a kid. He speaks fondly of recipes passed down from his grandma with instructions that included such obscure measurements as a “chubby pinch.” “I love the vernacular of yesteryear, but translating it can be daunting,” he observes, “especially when it calls for a certain Watkins product that isn’t marketed anymore or a ‘sleeve of Premiums.’ I figured out that was crackers, but how? Is the shrunken sleeve we have in the cupboard today anything like what Grandma was calling for? I don’t think so.”
Amy, who graduated from Bismarck High School, came to Moorhead to attend Minnesota State University. Food — and radio — were not foremost on her mind. Instead, after several years in Washington, D.C. she returned to Fargo in 2007 and landed a job at KFGO, where she’d interned as a communications major. First working as Joel Heitkamp’s producer, she was paired with Jack Sunday on “It Takes Two” in 2015. Three years later, when Sunday began spending winters in Florida, she had to choose a substitute partner. JJ, who had been on-air on Midwest Communication’s Rock 102 (morphing into Mix 101.9), was a perfect fit. They’ve been together ever since.
She credits her husband of 10 years, Kristjan Helgoe, with sparking her interest in cooking. “He got me more interested in cooking. He loves it,” she says. “I love hosting. Our first Thanksgiving dinner for our whole extended family sort of catapulted both of us into the kitchen.” While Kristjan continues to enjoy cooking and mastering new skills, like the barbecue class he and JJ took last month, she follows a different path to the kitchen. “He loves trying new recipes. I make comfort foods — safe, familiar foods everybody wants to come home to.”
But not quite everybody. “A lot of people cook out of necessity, and I do, too,” she confesses. “You cook what your kids want to eat.” For her two, Bjorn, 5, and Gretta, 3, that may mean whipping up pancakes together on weekends: “But, basically, they’d be happy to skip meals and just snack all day.”
JJ’s foodie skills have earned him a certain prominence in the down-home cooking community. An avid griller, he has judged the North Dakota Barbecue Cook-off, the Coors Light Chili Cook-off, the Drekker Hotdish Fest and other competitions. “I really enjoy seeing how proud people are when they present their special dishes with their secret ingredient,” he observes. Then he confides, “It’s usually cinnamon.”
Foodie Fridays are a tradition on their radio program. But the two are proudest, they say, of something they cooked up three years ago in the early days of the pandemic. “We were brainstorming on safe ways for people to get out of the house and get together,” he recounts. That’s when they came up with Parking Lot Bingo.
It was a huge success — a way for people to get out and have fun, safely ensconced in their “pods.” Every Friday from April to September in 2020 and again in 2021, cars lined up in parking lots, from the Center Mall to surrounding towns like Hunter and Leonard. Using their cellphones with audio-only Zoom and sitting in their own cars, players competed for fun, silly prizes.
The weekly gatherings drew hundreds of participants, reaching 550 at their peak. “They were the largest games going in the country,” says JJ. They took their enterprise very seriously, wearing gloves and masks as they drew numbers from a professional bingo machine gifted by JJ’s wife Jill. “Even now, thinking about it puts a smile on my face,” he admits. “It kept us going. I’d have to say it was our masterpiece.”
As for their new Extra column, the two pros admit to feeling somewhat nervous. “We have a lot riding on this first one,” JJ says.
They settled on Tater Tot Hotdish. “Nobody does it better than the Upper Midwest,” Amy adds. We aren’t changing up the original this week. We’re just zhuzhing it up a little.” Then she’s compelled to prove “zhuzh” is a real word in the dictionary: like Amy and JJ’s very personal take on good food, it means “to make something more stylish, lively or attractive.”