Five Food Confessions: James Norton

Professional appreciators of good food are supposed to value a number of things: wholesome, carefully sourced ingredients. Artisanal craft. Nuanced, challenging flavors. Presentation that is either precious and suggestive of ancient Asian ornamental artistic disciplines or “rustic” in a way that conjures up an exhausted but deeply soulful French peasant who labored over his cassoulet for 12 hours after 14-hours of shoveling wheat. Or whatever it is that French peasants do, if any, in fact, still exist.

All of these things are valuable to me. I’ve eaten at Chez Panisse during the height of the late summer harvest season, savored the artistry of Lucia’s and Lenny Russo’s Heartland, and fussed over the produce at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market. All that crap, and more. There are artisanal balsamic vinegars in my kitchen that will knock the tastebuds out of your mouth if you over-sampled them, and I’m proud of that fact. I don’t shy away from brining a whole turkey overnight to achieve maximum tenderness without sacrificing flavor or covering something in homemade puff pastry just for the sheer hell of it. Were I to accidentally cut off my own thumb, I would puff pastry it before going to the hospital, just to impress the surgeon.

All this said, any gourmand who swears to you that they have no culinary embarassments is almost certainly campaigning for something. I’m not up for election, and so here’s a full accounting of  sins.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

1. Taco Bell

Let’s clear up one thing right now: Taco Bell is not Mexican food. It resembles Mexican food in the same way that a Push-Up resembles hand-churned vanilla ice cream, or that Jelly Belly “buttered popcorn” flavored beans resemble actual buttered popcorn.

In fact, the flavors and textures of Taco Bell’s various offerings are so far removed from actual Mexican cooking that there is no possible way the two can be confused. Taco Bell is bland, soft, one-dimensional, a mix of mush, adult baby food in the guise of ethnic fare.

I love the stuff.

In high school, whenever there was an assembly called to celebrate some sort of sporting victory or dance-related hokum, my friends and I would skip out, pile into any available automobiles and drive out to Taco Bell. There, we’d eat a wide assortment of faux-Mexican dishes dominated by soft tacos and 7-layer-burritos. To this day, Taco Bell tastes like freedom.

Not just freedom from school, but freedom from flavor, from nutrition, from having to figure out what to order. Nihilistic? Sure. Primally satisfying? Yes. And after 16 years, not a flavor has changed.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

2. Eating Thai Food With Chopsticks

It’s been pointed out, time and time again, that the people of Thailand have been using Western tableware since forever and a day. Despite this fact, most Thai restaurants graciously cater to idiot Americans who can’t tell Thai food from sushi, or chop suey, or chicken chow mein. You want chopsticks? They’ll offer them to you, without even rolling their eyes.

That said: I’ll take ‘em.

Eating with chopsticks takes a certain amount of concentration and dexterity, and it keeps metal forks out of one’s mouth. It’s entertainment, sure, but it’s also a way to concentrate on the taste of the food. Granted that it’s inauthentic and boorish — it also feels right on a gut level. And if the people at True Thai authorize their use — TRUE Thai! — can it really be so bad?

It’s impossible to argue that a feeling actually makes something right, of course. But it does make chopsticks pleasant to use, authenticity be damned.

3. Bad Chinese Food

Greasy potstickers, crab rangoons, moo-shu pork pancakes with piles of hoisin, pork fried rice, General Tso’s chicken — these are not haute cuisine. They’re lowbrow comfort food, loaded with impurities, regularly prepared only with the minimal amount of effort required to avoid imparting food-borne illness and sometimes not even that. And yet: What goes better with an episode of Clean House, Dirty Jobs or Forensic Files? Sometimes a quick phone call to Hop Wong in Longfellow is just what the doctor ordered. There’s no culinary defense for the majority of what most neighborhood Chinese restaurants push out of their doors: It’s generally cheap food made badly for ignorant people. All that said: It’s also damned delicious and highly entertaining. There’s something about the distinctive white containers, opened up, disgorging their contents onto paper plates, that says: “Relax! We’re taking it easy tonight.” Bring on the moo-shu and don’t skimp on the fortune cookies.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

4. Folgers Coffee with cream and sugar

Yes, coffee is the new wine. Yes, roasting blah blah blah, cupping blah blah blah, $11,000 Clover machines blah blah blah. All that said: there is a type of dude who just wants coffee to contain caffeine, to be sweet, milky, cheap and pleasant to drink without being too assertive, and to be hot. Call him a lout, call him a barbarian at the gates, call him “me.” Folgers is good enough for a former trained barrista — can’t it be good enough for you? In a world with a seemingly infinite number of $5 cups that are over-roasted, acrid, acidic and bitter — with the exception of the black gold poured with real expertise at Kopplin’s in St. Paul — is that so bad?

5. McGriddles

Once upon a time, I wrote a story that suggested that the McDonald’s McGriddle breakfast sandwich was “oilier than Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton making love on the beach,” and I’ll stand by those words. The McGriddle, a breakfast sandwich prefaced on the idea of syrup-soaked mini-pancakes in lieu of, say, bread or a biscuit, is about as light and delicate as a hockey puck, and probably has an equivalent amount of calories. It’s also just the right way to wake up when you’re taking a four-hour road trip across Wisconsin at 6:30 in the morning. Washed down with gulps of McDonald’s surprisingly excellent coffee (the house brand is, believe it or not, Newman’s Own), a McGriddle is just the right compact little bundle of sweet, greasy, salty and carb-y to supercharge you through the first couple hours of the trip. Do I feel bad about liking this experience? Hell yes. No man can stare a McGriddle in the face without seeing his own mortality reflected in its greasy sheen.

Still: It’s a sandwich made of pancakes! How can you not love that?

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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18 Comments

  1. Great list. Personally, I’d substitute Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for the McGriddle.

  2. Mine is hot dogs. Not haute dogs. An Oscar Mayer nuked for 30 seconds on a piece of store bread with a slice of American cheez, smeared with HFCS-rich ketchup, French’s yellow and sweet relish.

  3. Ha, Jim. When I first read this there was no comment link. I assumed you were protecting yourself from the scourge of the likes of east coast doug. “Taco Bell! Don’t you know [insert sanctimonious comment on how ignorant you are about food and nutrition].”

    I have to say though, Taco Bell is pretty ballsy — haven’t been there in years with absolutely no urge to go back.

  4. Fine list, Jim. But I need to call you on the Folgers, bro. I’m willing to drop the 5 for a fine start to the day — I want to set the tone right with something that tastes good and sets my head afire; as opposed to a heaping scoop of gravel that comes in a big-ass tub and seemingly has the staying power of Regis.

    Crush the crystals, my good man.

  5. Brian- The comments being off on this story was a mistake. I flipped the switch early this morning. We’re going to allow free comments on almost everything here. Hopefully it won’t get too out of hand!

  6. I thought the same as brian when I read this this morning.

    Thanks for mentioning the much-maligned Taco Bell. No matter how much great Mexican food I eat, or even if I generally prefer chain burritos from Chipotle with better ingredients, there are times when only Taco Bell will do.

  7. You should do a post on the healthiest fast food options in the area.

  8. HazelStone02/20/2009Reply

    Thai people DO eat with chopsticks, but usually only noodle soup. When I was living there, I impressed my Thai host family at the local noodle stand by being better with chopsticks than their teenagers (I’d just spent a month in China).

  9. Though a few of these I rarely indulge in (mcmuffin, mac&cheese) some of them I do with no apologies.

    1. Sausage McMuffin with egg, and hashbrowns, and a pint of milk
    2. Kraft Mac&Cheese
    3. Ranch dressing with my wings, NEVER bleu cheese
    4. Hellman’s mayo on… anything that demands a condiment
    5. Tostido’s Salsa con queso. Have you ever tried a natural version of this? It’s disgusting.

  10. But what do you get at Taco Bell? Do you stick with the classics like the Bean Burrito or try the new items when they come out. I’m a Cheesarito guy and always will be.

  11. Author

    One to two soft tacos and a seven-layer-burrito, pretty much the same thing I was getting in high school. Old habits die really hard.

  12. I love the 7-layer burrito myself, but every time I eat one I can’t help but think how it’s the vegetables at fast food joints that can make you sick, not whatever they’re passing off for meat.

  13. I love this list! And I completely agree with your thoughts on the McGriddle and a road trip. They’re also great for hangovers.

  14. Finally someone has captured the natural essence and brilliant poetry that is the McGriddle. Thank you, Jim.

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