"Over the river and through the wood" is the classic standard, but holiday travel often turns out to be a longer trip than that: Many of us will be covering long stretches of bleak Midwestern terrain this Thanksgiving without anything but fast food to eat. There's a new book out by the creators of the Heavy Table website that aims to unearth some hidden road food gems, however — it's called "The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food."
The Heavy Table's James Norton spoke with Tom Crann of MPR News' All Things Considered.
TOM CRANN: Why "The Secret Atlas"?
JAMES NORTON: I'm a map nerd, and so I really wanted to do a book about Midwestern food with a strong geographic component. On the 30-person team that created this book were a couple of cartographers, Matt Dooley and Nat Case, and they did a great job giving the book a real sense of Upper Midwestern place.
CRANN: Why the interest in documenting road food?
NORTON: Even though we're a Minneapolis-based web magazine, we love to travel, and we think sometimes it's those little culinary epiphanies on the road that are some of the best meals you can have. That really comes through in the Atlas.
We've got chapters like "Road Trip Eating Between the Capitals" by John Garland, which runs a route from St. Paul to Madison to Des Moines. And Chuck Terhark wrote a great chapter called "Small Towns, Good Eats" which actually scores a bunch of small rural restaurants using a formula he calls "the Chatterbox Score."
Susan Pagani and her Ladies Books and Tackle Society tramped all over Wisconsin fishing for trout and eating country fare. And Sean Weitner went camping in state parks all over Wisconsin and he dug into the local small town cuisine as he went.
CRANN: So let's put some of that effort to work. What if our Thanksgiving destination is in Iowa?
NORTON: John Garland raved up Prairie Canary in Grinnell, saying the "grilled salmon on toasted challah is a nearly perfect sandwich, between the moist fish, crunchy pickled onions, and tangly dill-goat cheese spread." He also praised Short's Burger and Shine in Iowa City, a "slender tunnel" of a restaurant with burgers made from local beef and only Iowa craft beer on tap.
And you can always stop for a Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich - John did a story on the Heavy Table about them that is darn near authoritative.
CRANN: How about those of us driving through Wisconsin?
NORTON: I'm actually going back to Madison and Milwaukee for Thanksgiving myself, so that's a question close to my heart. Local cheese and sausage sold at gas stations is an easy answer - and, really, surprisingly decent - but we dug a bit deeper.
John Garland talked up getting a Reuben at the Target Bluff German Haus on Exit 55 between St. Paul and Madison. "It's a German beer hall that hits all the right campy notes," he wrote. Susan Pagani loves the "fresh, crisp sandwiches" at Dish and the Spoon Cafe in River Falls, Wis. And personally, my family always stops at The Loft at the Osseo, Wis., exit - or, the "Latte Barn" as we call it. Decent coffee, great beer and cheese.
CRANN: How about those of us traveling through Minnesota at large?
NORTON: Lots of choices. Chuck Terhark talked up Kings Place in Miesville with its 30-odd different hamburgers, all with baseball-themed names inspired by the famous Miesville Mudhens. Tim Gihring talked up Los Gables in Fountain, praising its "authentic Mexican [food] with local grass-fed beef."
And if you're going through Faribault, stop at the Faribault Cheese Cave shop and try the pizza - particularly the pear/blue cheese/local honey pizza for dessert. It's wild and absolutely delicious.
CRANN: Where can readers find the Secret Atlas of North Coast Food?
NORTON:Among other places, we're selling it at Common Good Books in St. Paul and Kitchen Window in Minneapolis - you can find the whole list of local stores or order it online at heavytable.com/books.
CRANN: Finally, what about for those of us who are staying close to home this Thanksgiving — you wrote about an all-Minnesota Thanksgiving in the current issue of Minnesota Monthly magazine &strong; what are some last-minute locavore suggestions?
NORTON: Let me throw a few ideas at you. First and foremost, make your pecan pie with local maple syrup instead of corn syrup. A little more expensive, somewhere between 20 and 30 times more delicious. It's amazing what a difference it makes, and you're supporting the local economy.
If you want to get pate in the mix, it's a great way to kick a meal off (or a great host gift), get chicken or pork liver at a local meat market. We really like Everett's or Clancey's for example. Make a pate; it's much easier than you think. It blows people away. Or you can go to Surdyk's — they've got it right there for you, ready to serve.
And finally, local wine. We've got a great cold-climate wine thing going on here, and it's really building. Spirits writer John Garland serves as a judge at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition, and he recommends a Waconia-grown Zinfandel stand-in, the Marquette, from Parley Lake winery. He says it's smooth and jammy with soft blueberries and a spicy white-pepper anise finish from Stinson Appalachian Oak, a great pairing with turkey.