Ethical Eating, Great Food Writing, and Last Meals with James Norton from Heavy Table

Photo of James Norton by Becca DilleyPhoto of James Norton by Becca Dilley

I recently had the chance to conduct an email interview with James Norton, founder and editor of Heavy Table, one of the best and fastest growing food websites in the Midwest (I also asked James about his new book, The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin). I was especially interested in Heavy Table's Atlas of Ethical Eating, which asks restaurant and market owners questions about their food in order to help customers know how they're spending their dollars. The Atlas is an excellent resource, and I'm pleased to see it on Heavy Table's radar. Here is our interview.

Simple, Good, and Tasty: How did Heavy Table's Atlas of Ethical Eating come about?

James Norton: It occurred to me that we - as a society - are moving more and more toward an ideal of understanding where our food comes from, and at what cost. I wanted to put together a resource that would focus on the Twin Cities area (and a bit beyond) and help people get a sense of what establishments are struggling toward making those sources and that cost understandable, so that people could make better decisions as consumers.

SGT: What does Ethical Eating mean to you?

JN: Actually, I'm not sure that that's very important. What we tried to do with the Atlas was figure out almost every concern/interest that people could have about "ethical" eating and then reflect it - which of them reflect my own personal stance is not entirely relevant. What we wanted to do is create a matrix of decision making so that people could make more informed decisions. Maybe sustainable seafood and environmental footprint are your primary concerns - well, focus on those axes and ignore the rest. Or maybe you're genuinely curious and want to know all the different ins and outs of a given place - it's all there for you. We really tried to take a sweeping approach, and we consulted with some other folks who are better informed than we are while putting it together.

SGT: How are your food and restaurant choices impacted by your view of ethics?

JN: Almost not at all, to be honest. As a general assignment food critic (and a reviewer of frozen and fast food for, I have to eat just about everywhere - and typically do. The major impact for me, personally, is that I've added world impact - environmental, social, species, etc. - to my criteria when I'm thinking about how to evaluate food or a given business. I'm willing to give credit (or at least note) good intentions and good practices. It doesn't excuse lousy food, but the added cost or constraint does sometimes help explain it. And when you can get local/sustainable/otherwise ethical food that also tastes great, well, that's a wonderful thing.

SGT: How does local and organic food play into the concept of ethical eating?

JN: I think they're both relatively key. Local food is more accountable, necessarily more transparent, and more community focused. You need to answer for what you've served. And organic food - well, that varies wildly depending on what's going on. There are big companies that have figured out how to manipulate the label, and Amish or other small farmers who practice almost 100% organic farming who don't jump through the hoops to be certified. There's a real struggle to define and understand exactly what "organic" means in a given situation, but I think it's a worthwhile struggle.

SGT: What have you learned by compiling this resource?

JN: The most interesting thing for me is how people answer the questionnaire. Some folks drill down and give long, thoughtful, qualified answers. Others just say "Yep, sign me up" and leave the specifics up for interpretation. You can learn a lot about how dedicated a place is to a given aspect of ethical eating by reading the questionnaires in detail - it's a really fascinating trip through the kind of decisions businesses make when they balance cost and ethics, and figure out how to translate their decisions into marketing and/or identity.

I also took the opportunity to ask James a few more general questions about Heavy Table, his influences, what drives him, and what he likes to eat and cook. One advantage of an email interview with a terrific writer is that there's not much editing required. Check it out.

SGT: What makes a meal worth writing about?

JN: I like to see one of three things: A new idea that I can try to explain and get excited about; a really excellent interpretation of a classic (a salad, a burger, a slice of pizza), or a terrific trainwreck. Any of those is good fodder for exploration. It's fun for me if I can put context - how something's made, what an "ideal" version looks like, what bigger lessons can be learned - into a restaurant or other food review. Not every meal lends itself to greater exploration.

SGT: How does local food inform your approach? Does it? How about organic and fair trade food?

JN: It's great when someone's using local food on their menu, because at this point, I'm probably familiar with (or have even met) the purveyor, and that gives me an added dimension of explanation and exploration that I can add to the piece. Organic and fair trade stuff is interesting, too - it's a chance to interpret and explore sometimes opaque concepts and put them into a local context.

SGT: What's next for the Heavy Table?

JN: Good question. Our main challenge is figuring out how to convince the local food community that we're a site worth advertising and partnering with. We've had some success (we've paid all our contributors out of our incoming revenue) but figuring out a financial model that allows for growth is absolutely key.

SGT: Do you cook? If so, what do you like to cook? What resources (cookbooks, family recipes) do you use?

JN: I absolutely love to cook. It's relaxing in a way that nothing else is. I enjoy prep, I enjoy cooking, I enjoy baking, I enjoy plating. My current favorites are a spent grain bread that I bake almost weekly, a go-to chicken tikka masala, and, when the weather favors it, grilling brats from Kramarczuk's. Now that it's no longer grill season, it's about time to bust out my Belgian beer stew, which, if I'm not overstepping my bounds, is just dynamite. I always look forward to Christmas cookie season, too - I do some killer rumballs and classic gingerbread cookies. Plus spritz. I've also recently gotten into salads - I picked up a bunch of oils and balsamics from Annona Gourmet in Northeast, and am whipping up dressings + homemade croutons on a regular basis. They're really simple salads, but better than a lot of the salads I get in restaurants.

SGT: You're obviously a well read guy. Who and what are your writing and food inspirations?

JN: Ooh, there are plenty. Christopher Kimball and Cook's Illustrated taught me how to cook - the clean writing and logical explanations really helped me get from 0 to 60. MFK Fisher, pure genius, that woman. I read and very much enjoyed Brillat-Savarin's "Physiology of Taste." Love Harold McGee's seminal work "On Food and Cooking." Anthony Bourdain is a real inspiration - he's very no bullshit, very interested in talking to real people, a sincere explorer of interesting food - high brow, low brow, whatever. Ditto Alton Brown, who is curious and fearless - his "Feasting on Asphalt" series was amazing. William Grimes, restaurant critic of The New York Times, was an early inspiration. I used to read and savor his arrogant, deeply knowledgeable, spellbinding accounts of restaurants I'd never eat at. I'm a huge fan. 

SGT: It's your last meal. What's for dinner? What are you drinking?

JN: I think about this from time to time. I think for me, a good last supper is Thanksgiving, featuring a brined turkey, plus all the sides (cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin bread, wild rice something or other). It's my favorite meal of the year (which I prove by having it at least three times a year - once in November on the usual date, and a couple times in February as "Febgiving.") Dessert would be my grandma's pecan pie, or, if that's not available, my own apple/pecan double decker pie, plus a slice of bourbon pumpkin pie, with real whipped cream. Digestif would be a couple fingers of Highland Park 18. Shoot me after that. Alternately, I could go with chicken tikka masala made with Callister Farms chicken and the garam masala spice mix from Saffron restaurant. I had that the other night, and it was deadly good.