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‘A different kind of food book’: Minnesota husband and wife team up on ‘Lake Superior Flavors’

Becca Dilly and James Norton, along with their 15-month-old son, Joe, sign books at the Duluth Coffee Company on Saturday afternoon. They recently published “Lake Superior Flavors,” a guide to food and drink along the circle tour of Lake Superior. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Cover of “Lake Superior Flavors: A Field Guide to Food and Drink Along the Circle Tour,” by James Norton and Becca Dilly. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Pannukakku is described as custard meets omelet, as served at Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant in Houghton, Mich. Photo by Becca Dilley. 3 / 6
James Norton and Becca Dilley, the duo behind “Flavors of Lake Superior,” call the ceiling Naniboujou Lodge in Grand Marais "one of the most beautiful architectural sights around the shores of Lake Superior." The lodge's homemade cinnamon rolls get a mention in the book. Photo by Becca Dilley 4 / 6
Monks from the Society of St. John Monastery started Jampot, a bakery in the Upper Peninsula. Photo by Becca Dilley. 5 / 6
Norton and Dilley’s herring fishing trip with commercial fisherman Steve Dahl is also featured in the “Lake Superior Flavors.” Photo by Becca Dilley 6 / 6

For the past 25-plus years, monks have been living in near isolation on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In addition to their quest to get closer to God, they are also the berry foragers and bakers behind Jampot and its specialty Abbey Bread.

At Duluth Coffee Company, beans are roasted on-site in small batches and off-sale coffee is labeled with an unassuming stamp.

And in Thunder Bay, Persian doughnuts — sweet rolls with signature pink frosting — are the thing.

Twin Cities writer James Norton and photographer Becca Dilley are a husband-wife food-travel team that released a book earlier this year highlighting the local foods served in specific areas of Northern Minnesota, Canada, Michigan and Wisconsin’s South Shore.

“Lake Superior Flavors: A Field Guide to Food and Drink Along the Circle Tour” features nearly 70 stops and countless stories between Duluth and Superior — the long way around.

The 200-page book features full-color, documentary-style photographs and multi-page profiles mixed with quick-hit quirky blurbs. It was published by University of Minnesota Press — which solicited book proposals from Norton and Dilley, according to acquisitions editor Pieter Martin.

The duo is known for its work telling stories about food: Norton created the popular regional food website Heavy Table, and in 2009 he and Dilley published “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin” through the University of Wisconsin Press.

“We like local food stories,” Dilley said.

Two times around

The book was a three-year project that included rounding Lake Superior twice and occasionally doubling back for quick trips to the four regions covered in the book: Minnesota, Canada, Michigan and Wisconsin.

They hit a pasty shop in Marquette, Mich., and Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, a 40-foot trailer set among the ruins of a fire-ruined eatery on Madeline Island.

There was a slice of “one of the best pumpkin pies we’ve encountered” during Canadian Thanksgiving, a visit to the apples of Bayfield and the deep dish at Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior. 

 The goal was to find a range of specialties, according to Norton, chees makers, brewers, fish smokers. Norton and Dilley used a mix of word-of-mouth from locals and online research to get a sense of the buzz in Grand Marais and the chatter in Ashland.

And sometimes, things were more spontaneous.

“We road trip well together,” Norton said. “We’re willing to have a plan, and we’re willing to throw it out if something more fun comes along.”

This sort of roaming led the duo to a sign that led them to a remote Wisconsin bakery, which led them to a surprise encounter with sourdough bread.

“It was a delicious, whacky and unexpected thing,” Dilley said.

Asked for some of the more memorable experiences, Norton was quick to respond.

“I’d certainly never been herring fishing,” he said.

The writer and photographer joined with commercial fisherman Steve Dahl in Knife River, which included an early alarm clock and an expanse of open water from a spot in a low-riding skiff. Along the way, Dilley captured a photo of a gull lingering close to the boat.

The trip made a lasting mark.

“It was a window into a personal and ancient way of gathering food,” said Norton.

The monks of Eagle Harbor, Mich., attracted Norton for the way they take gentle spirituality “and make it part of their workday.”

“Jim ordered Abbey Bread for Christmas,” Dilley said, referencing what Norton refers to as “gingerbread fruitcake of the Gods” in the book.

Dilley said it’s the experience with pannukakku that she keeps coming back to. She described the Finnish dish, served at Suomi Home Restaurant and Bakery in Houghton, Mich., as being like custard.

“It has an interesting texture,” she said. “But it’s also a $3 side dish. It’s very casual.”

And, during a recent book signing at Duluth Coffee Company on Superior Street, they plotted how to fit in a trip to Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park. An interview with owner Eric Goerdt is among the first in the book. 

Northern Waters is a shop that could compete in major food markets like New York City, Norton said.

Nine spots in Duluth and Superior get a mention, ranging from JJ Astor Restaurant and Lounge’s fry bread to the Anchor Bar’s $3 locally sourced burgers.

“Lake Superior Flavors” fit into the publishers’ focus on books of regional interests ranging from cookbooks to essays to architecture.

“Lake Superior is sort of fascinating,” Martin said. “It’s a vast chunk of geography and has many different dimensions to it. There are tourist economies with restaurants and parts that are more hardscrabble.

“It’s a fascinating place.”

An unconventional guide book

There are parts of the book that have already, just months after publication, become outdated. Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse, a 90-plus year landmark in Knife River, was heavily damaged by a fire in mid-May — though it has since reopened.

Vanilla Bean, a Two Harbors-based cafe, changed hands from Jan Bergman to Jason Vincent.

And Satellite’s Country Inn, an unassuming shop in Schroeder known for its homemade white herring fish cakes, has closed.   

Norton said he knew this would happen. But, he said, this was never meant to be a definitive guide book. It’s about telling the story of a time and place and the people.

“This was an opportunity to connect with fascinating artisans,” he said. “Things come and go and fluctuate. These stories and experiences with food and culture will always resonate. It’s a window into lives and stories through food.

“It’s a different kind of food book.”

Since writing “Lake Superior Flavors,” the Norton-Dilley team has collaborated on the birth of a child (Joe is about 15 months old), and Norton has initiated two successful Kickstarter campaigns to self-publish works:

“The Wendigo’s Credit Card and Other Stories” is a book of short stories that combines elements of mythology and comedy. The project recently greatly exceeded its $1,600 fundraising goal.

Last summer, Norton passed his $16,000 goal to create “The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food,” which is billed as “telling the stories of Upper Midwestern food and drink in all manners of perspectives.


“Lake Superior Flavors: A Field Guide to Food and Drink Along the Circle Tour”

Author: James Norton, photography by Becca Dilley

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Cost: $21.95