James Norton talks about The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food

Categories: Interview
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Photo courtesy James Norton
James Norton of The Heavy Table and the new not-so-secret atlas of area food
Midwestern cuisine is all the rage these days. From the national magazines to the Food Network, everyone seems to have taken note that we have a whole lot of fabulous food. Few know those back roads and byways better than Heavy Table editor (and one-time Hot Dish contributor) James Norton. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, he and several local food writers and illustrators have published The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food

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The book primarily covers the food scene near the metro area and Madison, Wisconsin, but also travels up the North Shore, and tackles a few other, more remote regions. Each chapter is penned by a different writer or illustrator with their own unique approach to exploring the area's food. One chapter follows the smells of Minnesota, while another tracks the spots where Bob Dylan ate around his home town of Hibbing.

From the perspective of someone who grew up on the Iron Range, there are several dishes that have been covered in previous Norton books (as he notes below), but were nevertheless missed here. As an atlas, it's not an all-encompassing compendium of every single great dish to be found in the region. It is, however, a fun read. Louie the Loon (a recurring column on Heavy Table) ambles down St. Paul's West 7th Street and eats every single burger available on this particularly beefy stretch of town. It's a fresh take on some familiar foods and a discovery of some road-trip-worthy new spots. 

We spoke with Norton about which roads to travel, the state of local food writing, and whose stocking should be stocked with this handy new tome.

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The Hot Dish: In your entry you describe the current state of food writing as "a vulgar goldmine of crass stupidity." Is that a jab at the local "rah rah" state of reviews or the general Yelp nation that has risen or... are you trying to tell us something?

James Norton: Ha! Not a shot at any of the regular food writers associated with the bigger publications around here, City Pages included. Not even a shot at Yelp. I often use crowd-sourced reviews to confirm a hunch or take the temperature of how a place is being perceived and received.

But I've seen a "food is the new hot thing" mentality (particularly via TV) that has led to a lot of breathless, context-free coverage of trends, fads, and sexy new restaurants to the absolute detriment of serious food people (think cheesemakers, brewers, sausage makers) and independent restaurants without PR budgets.

The "rah rah" state of reviews is a real problem, and we at Heavy Table try our best not to be part of it -- we evaluate places warts and all. There's this idea that a negative review is "mean." That completely misses the point. If you're serious about your art, you'll embrace thoughtful criticism, consider it, and use it as a way to improve your skills. I'm never thrilled when people knock my writing or editorial choices, but on a good day, I find the (sometimes painful) truth behind the words and try to learn from it.

Hot Dish: How did you choose the writers and illustrators featured in the Secret Atlas of North Coast of Food?

JN: Our team was an almost 50/50 mix of people who have been contributing to the Heavy Table for years (like John Garland, Emily Schnobrich, or Susan Pagani) and people in the community we've admired and wanted to reach out to (like Adam Turman, Tim Gihring, or Chuck Terhark.)

We wanted people who had an editorial sensibility and were capable of reporting the facts behind a story, but also the capacity to expand a bit and get colorful, and personal, and creative. We call the chapters in this book "journalistic essays" because we hope they're grounded in fact, but powered by art and passion.

Hot Dish: When did you first come up with the concept for the book?

JN: Last year, I took a short vacation to Seattle and found a book called Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit. It's a really gorgeous collection of illustrated maps and essays that tell a lot of surprising stories about the city of San Francisco, and it occurred to me: "Hey, this could be done with Upper Midwestern food, and it would be a terrific read."

Hot Dish: Your Kickstarter backers chimed in with some of their favorite hidden gems. Did they list any places you hadn't already visited? 

JN: I would say that most of the hidden gems were new to us. I was really impressed at all the little spots in rural Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa that came up through the process -- places I'm looking forward to checking out the next time I roadtrip around here.


Hot Dish: Were there any areas that didn't make it into the book that you wish you had included? Speaking as someone from the Range, where are the pasties? Is there really nothing in Brainerd? 

JN: Well, we didn't have pasties, but we did have porketta, sarma, and potica! And maybe I was still hungover from my previous book, Minnesota Lunch, which had a whole chapter on pasties. The book isn't meant to be thoroughly comprehensive, and it certainly wasn't. If we do another edition, I'd want to explore Fargo-area stuff, visit Lanesboro and Bluff country, tackle Door County, and do more in Milwaukee, and maybe explore a bit of Canada and the Upper Peninsula.

Hot Dish: Who would be an ideal candidate to receive this book as a gift for the holidays?

JN: I think there are two candidates: the Minnesota / Wisconsin local who has moved out to the coasts (or the South, or China, or wherever) and wants a virtual taste of home; and anyone who lives here who wants to discover a bunch of intriguing little places to eat -- a chowhound in the purest sense, always hungry for something different.

Hot Dish: Where are you excited to go out to eat next?

JN: On the immediate horizon, Lake & Irving looks intriguing, and I can't wait to give it a shot. Longer term, the upcoming Russell and Desta Klein projects are incredibly interesting to me. Every time I go to Meritage I have a great meal, and it will be awesome to see those guys spread their wings and expand.

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