New England is known for its clambakes, Louisiana for gumbo and Texas for barbecue, but few can name the defining food of the Northland. With “Lake Superior Flavors: A Field Guide to Food and Drink Along the Circle Tour” (University of Minnesota Press, 214 pages, $21.95), author James Norton and photographer Becca Dilley have charted this region’s defining foods and traditions. Through stories and photos of the people and environs, they show us there’s more to this place than fish boils, “you betcha.”
“The area is something of a new frontier,” Norton said. “People don’t have preconceived notions about what this food is.” He and Dilley are the husband-wife team that founded the food website Heavy Table.
“The lake is known for its shipwrecks and beautiful views, but food hasn’t been a component,” said Dilley. The book helps complete the story.
Consider the world-class smoked lake trout from Bayfield and Duluth, award-winning artisan cheeses from farms along Lake Superior’s South Shore and old-fashioned handmade pasties of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Meet Father Basil, who helped found St. John Monastery on the Keweenaw Peninsula, where the brothers’ livelihood depends on making jams and baking breads. As much travel guide as living history, the book shares the best-kept culinary secrets of this gorgeous, rough land and its generous, plain-spoken people. With his Studs Terkel-like eye for a good tale, Norton portrays these characters in memorable detail, while Dilley’s photos render them in living color.
The book does a nice job of shining a light on timeless rituals and traditions.
“In truth, the food here has always been real,” Norton said. “We found that most diners use real whitefish in the fish sandwiches, not frozen cod, real maple syrup on pancakes and they cut their own onions for fried onion rings.”
The book covers the “newbies” who have moved here more recently, drawn to the area’s beauty and opportunity. Goat herder and award-winning cheesemaker Michael Stanitis of Sassy Nanny in Herbster, Wis., credits the terroir for the light, clean flavor of his cheese. He’s the first cheesemaker to enter this market with an artisan product that retails for $5 per pound. Despite the price, it’s so popular that the IGA supermarket in nearby Washburn can’t keep it in stock.
The title refers to more than the taste of the foods you’ll find circling Lake Superior. It made me want to meet Audrey DeRoy of Fort William, Ontario, and learn to forage wild carrots with her, and find Steve Knauss of Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, Wis., to sip his coconut stout. The lake is large, life is short and summer is coming. Let’s hit the road, let’s eat.
Beth Dooley is the author of “Minnesota’s Bounty” and “The Northern Heartland Kitchen.”