Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor, Michigan

So this is what bread feels like, I thought, walking across the red-bricked streets of Ann Arbor, with red brick buildings on either side of me, on one of the most excruciatingly hot days of the summer. I had come from cool and breezy Vancouver Island to Ann Arbor, Michigan on a mission; to experience the nationally-famous, world class deli known as Zingerman’s. Born in 1982, it has grown beyond being Ann Arbor’s darling to an American institute of good eating with a personal mandate to source out the best of local and imported foods, to teach eaters about what they are tasting, where it comes from, the history behind say, peameal bacon, Darjeeling tea, or Costa Rican coffee.

It being too sticky for coffee and past the noon-hour rush, I expected a quiet house, but as I stepped inside the old corner building that is Zingerman’s I was hit with a crowd of surprisingly high-spirited, cool-tempered folks. Lines of hungry people zigzagged back from the deli counter and around the corner into the tiny pantry-like area of the shop that holds towering shelves of olive oils, preserves, mustards, crackers, dried goods, and cookbooks. Names were being called out from servers with paper bags in their hands, “John M!” someone yelled and paused to touch me on the shoulder. “How are you doing?” the server stopped to ask before responding to a raised arm and a “I’m John M!”

I stepped up to the cheese counter, looking for my favourite elusive mimolette. “Do you love cheese?” a worker behind the mountains of oozing, stinking, yellow and orange wedges asked after watching me peruse for a moment.

“Of course,” I replied, and told him about my penchant for mimolette. He proceeded to take me on a tour through the cheeses made in their own creamery that come closest to my favourite and a few others that, on a hunch, he thought I might enjoy. A good six samples later I found myself near the deli counter under a chalkboard menu crammed with mouth-watering sandwich selections. I realized I was in the middle of a gaggle of women who were having a hard time narrowing down the choices. “Come over here folks,” a deli server said to the group good-naturedly, “I’m going to help you decide.” Looking relieved, they followed and I picked a plump turkey sandwich, paid at the counter and headed into the courtyard where bright coloured umbrellas were keeping the beating sun off the happy snackers around the picnic tables.

While waiting for my order to come up, I wandered into the Café Next Door where Zingerman’s baristas and bakers have a cooler, quieter venue for mudslinging and scooping house-made gelato. I gratefully accepted an offer for a sample of moist dark chocolate cake with smooth —not cloyingly-sweet— frosting, ordered a perfectly bitter and creamy iced latte, and a side of crisp clean coleslaw to go with my sandwich. “Try anything you want,” the woman behind the counter encouraged me, “there’s no limit on samples.” At her behest, I nibbled a piece of mandelbread and rugelash and asked about the ‘dirty sheed’ listed on the menu under espresso drinks. (“Two shots of espresso, a shot of Mexican vanilla, ice, and cream.”) My favourite drink, hot cocoa, would have been murder on a day like this but it was good to know their mochas and hot chocolates were made with Scharffenberger’s chocolate and real whipped cream.

With iced latte and turkey sandwich —paired with the perkiest pickle I’ve ever set my teeth to— I sat at a table and took in all the information around me. The walls were papered with press stories on the Zingerman business, a story on how real hot chocolate is made (a coffee shop after my own heart), how they choose their coffee beans, and notes on nearby Calder farm where they source their dairy. Good reading material while chewing.

The food was exceptional, exceeding even the descriptions I had been given when I inquired my local friends about Zingermans. And their philosophy on educationg the public about food is exemplary, but what impressed me even more was how friendly and hospitable everyone was. It almost felt as though I had walked into a new friend’s kitchen, on the hottest day of the summer no less, and been given a place to sit, a glass of ice cold water and the best sandwich I’ve had in memory. Try some cake, try this ice cream we just made, let me tell me you where we got that turkey. The atmosphere was busy and full of that particular crazed energy of people who are hungry, hot, and in one of their favourite places, but I never felt ignored, rushed, or like a walking wallet. Rather several workers took time to ask how I was, if I wanted to taste anything, and how long was I in town for. They’ve got more than the food right there, they’ve got the attitude to go with it. Come in, sit down, enjoy a meal and let us tell you a story. – by Katie Zydbel

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