What a difference a state makes. Frankly, you'd suppose that what folks eat in Minnesota is not all that different from what we Cheeseheads chow down on, come noontime. But with Minnesota Lunch: From Pasties to Banh Mi (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $19.95), editor James Norton has put a stamp, an identity, on what Minnesotans eat for lunch and come up with a nice volume of regional food history to boot.
Norton, editor of the Twin Cities' food blogazine The Heavy Table and co-author of The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin (UW Press), and a graduate of Madison West High School, is both editor and contributor to this volume, which consists of 11 essays by Norton, Jill Lewis, Susan Pagani and Lori Writer. As the subtitle suggests, the Cornish pasty is covered as is the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, but other subjects are the fried walleye sandwich, the "State Fair Turkey Sandwich," the meatloaf sandwich, Mexican tortas, and Scandinavian open-face sandwiches. More local to Minnesota is a sausage called the Hot Dago and the lauded stuffed bar burger known as the Juicy Lucy. A chapter on Sambusa pays tribute to the local Somali population, and finally, a grab bag chapter at the end covers bratwurst and other beef sandwiches. The book is nine parts food narrative to one part recipe, but there is a recipe, or recipes, for each of the star sandwiches.
That regional food specialties remain amid the onslaught of Hardee's, Olive Gardens and Applebee's nationwide is noteworthy, but regional guidebooks that cover them are so often dreadfully written, in exclamatory Chamber-of-Commerce style. Not so Minnesota Lunch -- it's well written and a pleasurable read.
Let's take Norton's chapter on open-faced sandwiches ( in Danish, smorrebrod, or "butter and bread") as a unique Minnesota tradition. "In the fifties, the Viking Room at the Minneapolis Radisson had a dedicated Smorrebrods Seddel menu that would, when unfurled, stretch for about five feet," writes Norton. It looks like a sushi menu that customers could check off what filling they wanted on which bread style, a kind of Scandinavian tapas deal. Open-faced sandwiches, however, are a "fading presence" in Minnesota, although you can order them at the Scandinavian café Takk for Maten in Duluth. Sandwich recipes for a dill-cured salmon with dill mustard sauce, Swedish meatball with beet root, and shrimp salad are included.
The essay on the Jucy Lucy (or Juicy Lucy) is a great chapter of food history. The burger with a molten cheese center began as a way to lure diners into taverns known as 3.2 bars -- not a Wisconsin tradition -- that could serve nothing stronger than beer with a 3.2% alcohol content after Prohibition. Various legendary spots to purchase them in the Twin Cities are profiled, as well as methods to keep the cheese from leaking out onto the grill.
There's lots more here, including some recipes for various elements of great banh mis. The only sad thing here is that the photos are not in color. The cure for that, of course, is simple -- road trip.