Heavy Table's "Minnesota Lunch" Makes the Case for the Great Sandwich State

Count me among the many thousands of supporters, friends, and admirers of Heavy Table, a phenomenally good website focused on food in the Upper Midwest in general, and Minnesota in particular. In just over two years, the Heavy Table -- and its editor James Norton -- have become a true force for good food in our state, telling the stories of Minnesota's restaurants, farmers, trends, and tastes in ways that are both tasteful and mouthwatering. With daily articles, photos, graphics, and illustrations, Heavy Table makes the case for Minnesota as the center of our country's thriving food culture. Tired of listening to your friends on the coasts brag about how no other town compares to theirs? Send them to Heavy Table and shut them up.

Which brings us to the new book Minnesota Lunch: From Pasties to Banh Mi (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011). The attractive, 200-odd page book is edited by James Norton, but it has the Heavy Table written all over it, from the great food photos taken by staffers Katie Cannon and Becca Dilley to the engaging, inspiring stories told by Heavy Table writers Jill Lewis, Susan Pagani, Lori Writer, and James Norton himself. This is a good thing. 

 The title of the book itself is telling, especially the part that's in small print: From Pasties to Banh Mi. Minnesota is a culturally fascinating, continually evolving place to eat and to live. (The authors compellingly make the case that these things are one and the same.) In many ways, we're still the same pasty-loving Midwestern Lutherans we always were, the ones our grandparents taught how to soak lutefisk in butter to help it go down. But we're not just that anymore. Case in point: I recently had a chef-friend visit from Chicago, and he asked if we could find some good traditional Scandinavian food for lunch -- gravlax and such. After much frantic searching on my part, we ended up at Quang.

Minnesota Lunch is full of dishes, recipes, quotes from Minnesota chefs, and stories to get us thinking about how the locals eat. There's a chapter about fried walleye, "a no-brainer," says Pagani (although most of the walleye we eat are from Canada), and another one about the jucy lucy, of course, described by Norton as:

[...] a cheese-stuffed hamburger that presents the possible but not totally terrifying threat of spewing molten American cheese all over your arm, face, clothing, or dining companion [...] it's one of the few midwestern bar snacks that's routinely served with a verbal warning.

Yum! I'll admit that, having grown up in New York, I consider fried walleye sandwiches and jucy lucys to be cultural markers rather than actual foods. I tend to overeat anyway, so I'm not typically seeking out ways to double my heartburn. And, although I'm a lover of rich foods and sauces, I'm also philosophically against supersizing and over-the-topping everything we eat and drive. I also give a lot of thought to where my food comes from, and I've never seen a grass-fed jucy lucy.

All of which is to say that jucy lucys, fried sandwiches, cheese curds, and deep fried Twinkies are great foods to feed to out-of-town visitors. More likely than not, I'll be ordering the veggie burger. Or the banh mi.

In many ways, the banh mi is my ideal food -- inexpensive and delicious, with fresh ingredients, lots of different flavors, and jalapenos. And I'm clearly not the only one who loves them. Chris Stevens, whose Blackbird Cafe serves up an exceptionally rich, swanky version of the sandwich, is quoted in Minnesota Lunch as saying: 

It's a great amalgamation of cultures. It's a French sandwich, but all of these Vietnamese ingredients. It's so awesome. There's different kinds of pork, spicy chilies, and pickled carrots [...] It's a super-fresh sandwich, I think, as opposed to a big greasy burger or something.

And then Lori Writer does what the folks at Heavy Table do so well, all the time. "To tell the story of the banh mi sandwich is to explore a general culinary history of Vietnam," she writes, before proceeding to do just that. The story of Vietnam is now as much a part of Minnesota's own story as the story of lefse. And we are culturally better off for it.

The foods described in Minnesota Lunch, including several I'd never heard of (like the Hot Dago), are accompanied by loads of recipes, with detailed instructions about how you can make your own meals at home. This is a great service, especially for those of us who want to eat Mexican Tortas made from local, organic, and sustainable ingredients.

It's worth mentioning that, while Minnesota Lunch is more about food preparation than sourcing, Norton and team cover a bit of both, especially in Jill Lewis' excellent "State Fair Turkey Sandwich" chapter. Over the course of several pages, Lewis describes what makes Minnesota a great place to raise turkeys, including a discussion of Heritage breeds and what it takes to raise organic birds (and why almost nobody does it).

Minnesota Lunch is an immensely satisfying book, succeeding as both a history lesson and a host of reasons to be proud of Minnesota's food and culture. In his introduction to the book, Norton writes, "What we hope to do with Minnesota Lunch is to tell some road stories, share some great local food, and prime the palate for deeper exploration." Mission accomplished.

Who's hungry?

Header photo: "Breakfast Blucy" from The Blue Door Pub, by Becca Dilley.


Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at