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A new way of looking at Midwestern eats in James Norton's The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food
Secret Atlas could withstand being tossed into the back seat for a road trip.
Credit:The Heavy Table

There's some contention about whether the Upper Midwest needs rebranding as the "North Coast," largely around the precise coordinates. Schools in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania comprise the Division III North Coast Athletic Conference, and Brookings Institute scholar John Austin wrote a paper in 2007 about preserving America's North Coast, though he never really defines the term.

Enter The Heavy Table, a Minneapolis-based online food magazine. Founded in 2009, it has been dedicated to charting the ebbs and flows of dining in the Upper Midwest -- mostly the Twin Cities, but the rest of Minnesota as well adjacent states, including Wisconsin and Iowa. Madison native James Norton is the founding editor and his wife, Becca Dilley, is a founding photographer whose work has appeared in many media outlets.

If the team behind Heavy Table has its way, "North Coast" may yet come to refer to the aforementioned three states, thanks to its new book, The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food. The book was funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign (of which I was a proud backer), and Norton held a Madison launch party at Kitchen Gallery on Thursday night to celebrate the book's release. Local contributors John Kovalic, Lindsay Christians, and Sean Weitner were also in attendance, with the delicious wares of Barriques, Batch Bakehouse, Calliope Ice Cream, Candinas, and Wisco Pop ringing the bustling atrium that housed the event.

Though everything was as tasty as you'd expect -- Batch baguettes, Brandy Old Fashioned and Hot Peanut Butter ice creams from Calliope -- Barriques in particular really brought its A-game, with both chocolate-covered bacon and an innovative hot coffee punch spiked with black pepper and ginger. It wasn't clear if the two were meant to be consumed in concert, but the pairing definitely worked. The crowd swelled to fill the space between Kitchen Gallery and Context by an hour into the party, and Norton was in heavy demand, both handing out Kickstarter backer copies and autographing them on request.

If there's a specific benefit to the print format of the Secret Atlas over the website, it's in Heavy Table's willingness to get out there explore the small towns, the remote joys of Upper Midwest food and drink, places where the 4G signal might not carry that well. "We do as much shoe-leather journalism as we can," says Norton.

"Some of it's a little bit more perishable, some of it's a little bit more journalism," he continued. “There are some artistic flights of fancy, some essays, some more durable, more philosophical things. It is in that middle category. It's part perishable journalism, part durable history, and that's sort of deliberate."

The book feels good, the right kind of mix between sturdy and flexible that could withstand being tossed into the back seat for a road trip but not feel like a coffee table book gone off the reservation. "There is a lot, from a map perspective, that lends itself, I think, to coming with you on road trips."

Norton told me that one inspiration for the way the website was translated into a bound edition was the book Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit.

"I loved the format, I loved the concept, and I thought, 'We could take this concept, and apply it to what we're doing with food and drink, and come up with a really brilliant, beautiful, different book that no one's really done before, and really harness our strengths,'" explained Norton. "Heavy Table's strength is that we're a collective. A bunch of writers, a bunch of photographers, designers and editors, and we can take that breadth of experience and turn it into this tour of a region."

John Kovalic's annotated map of South Park Street (stretching from the Greenbush neighborhood to just south of the Beltline) is fun and intelligent, in keeping with the style he's honed over years of game creation and comic artwork. Lindsay Christians, with a gorgeous map from artist Brandon Raygo, talks to bartenders, restaurateurs, and other drink professionals about the classic and modern schools of old fashioned cocktail theory in Wisconsin. Sean Weitner turns in a classy, refined word-map of the border area Iowa shares with Minnesota and Wisconsin, and some of the highlights of the Hawkeye State.

The Minnesota content is excellent as well, with essays on the exceedingly popular Hell's Kitchen brunch service, artwork from Robb "WACSO" Burnham (one of my favorite artists on Heavy Table), and a very necessary extended appearance by Louie the Loon on the cheeseburgers of St. Paul.

Norton reports that a second printing may be in the works, if demand (or, heaven forbid, errata) calls for it. I asked if a second edition might also be forthcoming.

"Possibly, yeah. I want to really get good feedback from our backers and from our readers, see what people liked and didn't like, see how excited people might be to get behind another volume. But I think it's a durable concept, and there's absolutely tons more topics that we could tackle."

Wherever the shores of this North Coast lie, Heavy Table isn't through exploring their depths just yet.

Copies of The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food are available at the Kitchen Gallery.

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