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Every day we have a choice. We can take the easier road, the more cynical road, which is a road sometimes based on a dream of a past that never was, fear of each other, distancing and blame, or we can take the much more difficult path, the road of transformation, transcendence, compassion, and love, but also accountability and justice.
—Jacqueline Novogratz

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A banjo

Beliefs about Banjos, History, and a Host of Untold Stories

A look at how changing our beliefs can also change our lives

 

Thinking about everything that’s going on in the country, it seemed like beliefs would be an appropriate topic to write about. Studying the subject of beliefs in depth over the last six or seven years has really pushed me to reflect on my own. To explore whether the beliefs I hold—or held—were aligned with my vision and my values. Beliefs that are out of alignment, I came to realize, can cause great pain. Inaccurate beliefs can lead us to make bad decisions. Digging deeper into the story behind my beliefs, taking time to make sure they’re the beliefs that will serve me and others best, to make sure they’re aligned with what actually happened in the world . . . all of that work has been hugely helpful, both personally, and organizationally. 

To restate a few of the key learnings I had from the work on the book:

Beliefs are formed. They’re not genetic. 

Beliefs alter what we see and take in. We pretty much filter out information that doesn’t fit what we believe and take in the information that supports what we believe. Hence people can take in the same information but arrive at completely opposite conclusions. 

We all have beliefs—loads and loads of them—and many of us are unaware of what beliefs we hold.

When we’re unaware of our beliefs, we’re doubly unaware of the impact our belief-based actions are having no others. And often the intent behind our actions is not the way other people interpret what we say or do. I’ve screwed this one up a lot, so . . . I know. 

Beliefs are like the root systems of our lives—you can’t see them, but everything we decide to do is based on what we believe. And the longer and more strongly we hold a belief, the deeper the “roots” will go. 

When we nip a “weed”/behavior at the surface line, but leave the root system/beliefs intact, the behavior will almost always come back.

I would suggest that when we don’t know the story behind things, our beliefs are limited. Incomplete and inaccurate beliefs, I believe, can be dangerous. "Quietly insidious" might be a good way to say it. 

Which brings me to Rhiannon Giddens. I first heard about her through a band whose music I’ve long loved called Carolina Chocolate Drops. Then I got to actually meet her and the rest of the band in person when they ate at the Roadhouse a few times while they were playing in town. It wasn’t just the music that I loved. Her interest in the history behind the traditional songs she plays—how they came to be, who played them, where, and why—all shared with wit and wisdom—fascinated me. 

Last week, I was looking at a piece Rhiannon had written. It resonated. "Know thy history,” Rhiannon writes. “Let it horrify you; let it inspire you. Let it show you how the future can look, for nothing in this world has not come around before.” If we don’t know what happened in the past, it’s hard to have effectively helpful and moderately accurate beliefs about what’s happening in the here and now. Listing to her performances, reading things she’s written, Rhiannon Giddens changed my beliefs. In particular, about banjos. I’d certainly listened to a lot of banjo playing before I heard Rhiannon share stories about them. I really knew nothing at all about the instrument or where the banjo came from. There was no malice behind my ignorance. I’d simply never done any studying, never heard any history. My life seemed perfectly fine without it. Now I know better. My naïve beliefs were a big problem. Why? Because the significance of the instrument, the stereotypes that go with it, its historical importance, the role of race and its placement—or I should say, “misplacement”—in American history have impacted my beliefs about the American past in a big way. 

Here’s a little of what I learned. The banjo, I now know, came to the Americas from Africa. Historian Laurent Dubois (who wrote a whole book about banjos) says they were “pan-African instruments,” existing in various forms in different parts of the continent. Later, on this side of the Atlantic, banjos were built from memory by enslaved people. Where did each banjo player learn to play? We don’t know. Rhiannon’s charge to “Know thy history” is, to a great extent, part of my own life story. I love history. I study history. I write about history. At Zingerman’s, we cook history. We serve history. But in the culture of the Americas in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the lives of enslaved people were, by force, history-less. As Ben Marks, writing in Collector’s Weekly, said, “A centerpiece of this systematic dehumanization was to ignore an individual slave’s unique roots, which is actually how the one-size-fits-all concept of generic ‘African’ identity first took hold in the West. People had family histories and homelands—property [like slaves] did not.” 

When it came to playing this African instrument, some slave owners banned it. Others required enslaved people to play in order to get free entertainment for themselves and their friends. In the years after the words “All men are created equal” were written into the Declaration of Independence, banjo playing became increasingly popular in the South. By the 1820s and 30s, white people started to play the banjo, too. By the middle of the 19th century, they shifted from using homemade instruments to those that could be made and then sold as a trade. When white people in that era played the banjo to perform on stage, it was always done in blackface. Rhiannon Giddens says, “It’s a thing that must be discussed. It was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States for about 60 years. Black-faced minstrelsy. It’s baked in our culture in a lot of ways. It’s something that has to be grappled with.” Ben Marks says, “Minstrel shows took the country by storm, offering white audiences a rose-hued view of life on Southern plantations, performed by whites wearing blackface.”

I was, as you can tell, hooked by the history. I’d known nothing. I’d missed most of the story. My beliefs were completely off-base. Much of what I learned was hard to hear—the story of the banjo is not one that’s commonly shared in school books. Ben Marks says, “the minstrel shows codified racist stereotypes about African Americans—from their ‘natural’ sense of rhythm (less a compliment than an explanation of how uneducated musicians could possibly be so good) to their manner of speaking (the most offensive examples of black Southern dialects were written, rehearsed, and perfected by white minstrels).” Thousands of years of tradition were quietly rewritten. It came to be “common knowledge” that “only white people” were skilled enough to play banjo properly and professionally. 

When banjos entered the commercial world—i.e., instruments being made and sold for professional musicians to play—the business was run by and for white people. The banjo-focused minstrel band—which was still always performed in blackface—became the first big American cultural export. It was what Europeans of that era came to believe American culture was all about. Later, when professional Black musicians were able to get on stage for pay, it was only by putting on blackface (you read that right—Black musicians had to put on blackface) and copying the style of white musicians who had been putting on performances of faux images in blackface of their own. Decades later, when the first actual Black minstrel band, featuring the banjo, went to Europe, critics dismissed their playing because it “didn’t sound authentic.” 

If you ask a thousand Americans how many have heard a banjo, nearly all will answer in the affirmative. If you ask them to then tell you more about the background of banjos, I’d be impressed if even eight of them told you something like this story. I’m a big reader and a history major and I listen to banjo music and I didn’t have a clue. But like I said, Rhiannon Giddens changed my beliefs about banjos. And different beliefs about banjos have led me to a lot of places that I’d never likely have gone. “It must be done,” Rhiannon said. “We can’t be scared by it. It’s a thing we must contend with.” 

I’m not here to suggest that every misplaced or inadvertently misconstrued belief we have is about race. But living in this moment, that’s probably a worthwhile place to start. And the question I’m asking myself in the moment, and maybe you want to ask yourself, too, is “How many other ‘banjos’ do we have in our lives that we’ve never given two minutes of thought to?” Beliefs we took for granted as “true” but that might turn out to be terribly wrong? They could be about deep social issues, but just as easily they might be about family members, about education, about politics, sports, or small things that seem irrelevant. At least until we start to study. And, as Rhiannon Giddens challenges us, what happens when we learn the full story? What changes in our lives if our beliefs about those "banjos" change? How will those new beliefs alter how we behave? I’m definitely going to spend some time looking around my mind to see what I can find! The more we get the whole picture, the better we can understand others, the better we can honor their contribution, understand their perspective, and alter our own beliefs for the better. Small shifts in beliefs can lead to big changes in understanding and behavior. In the words of Gustav Landauer, “History is not only revolutionary, it is revolution.”

Since the Part 4 of the book came out, I've started to study more about what makes people (me included) change their beliefs. What I learned will later show up in another book or pamphlet still to be written. If you’d like to see the rough draft, drop me an email and I’ll send it your way.

Email Ari
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Pistachio Gelato from Zingerman's Creamery

Pistachio Gelato from the Creamery 

Elegance and excellence all in one creamy, nutty cup

 

If I were making a shortlist of Zingerman’s little-known culinary wonders, this stuff would definitely be on it. The Creamery’s pistachio gelato is a gem. I almost never eat ice cream, and I hardly ever eat sweets, but this stuff is special. A single spoonful is like a symphony—an abundance of flavor. So luscious, that when offered some, I don’t turn it down. It has an aromatic, subtly nutty flavor. We use a pure pistachio paste from Italy—100 percent pure pistachios. Mass-market pistachio ice cream can be almost bright green in color—because we don't use food coloring, the gelato is more of a pale brown. 

Pistachios, botanically, are a member of the cashew family and have been growing in Central Asia for probably 10,000 years—they’re believed to have been present in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the first century A.D., the Roman Emperor Vitellius brought them to Rome and Apicius referenced them in his now-famous classical cookbook. Supposedly, the Queen of Sheba loved them. They have been one of the most prestigious flavors of Italian gelato for the last century or so. New trees take about 7 to 10 years to produce fruit, but they can live for nearly 300 years. Originally imported in the 1880s for Americans of Middle Eastern descent, pistachios were first introduced to the rest of America as a snack food some 50 years later. Pistachio ice cream was invented only recently, in the 1940s, by James W. Parkinson of Philadelphia. And it wasn’t until 1976 that Americans harvested the first commercial crop of pistachios.

You could eat the pistachio gelato just as it is. Be sure to let it warm a bit so you get the full flavor. And here are a few ways to elevate your experience for hardly any work!

In Iran, pistachios are known as the “smiling nut.” In China, they’re called the “happy nut.” I’m kind of a nut and I’m smilingly, happy to eat this really great gelato, so maybe we’re bringing the world together in a wonderful cup of summer sweetness. You can buy the Pistachio gelato at the Cream Top Shop, at the Deli, or have some shipped through Mail Order to someone you love!

Stop by the Cream Top Shop for Gelato!
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Txakoli Vinegar at the Deli

Txakoli Vinegar from the Basque Country at the Deli

Basque wine makes a lovely vinegar

 

If you’re looking for a new vinegar to vary your salad making and other cooking, try one—or both—of these two terrific new offerings from the Basque Country. The first is sweet, the other is not; both are excellent, unique vinegars from a beautiful place on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. 

Up until about 15-20 years ago, Txakoli wine was hardly ever seen outside the Basque country. And up until about 10 years ago, it was never really sold as vinegar. That last emphasis is on the word sold. I’m sure people had Txakoli vinegar—every winemaker has wine that unintentionally turns. But to work hard to make vinegar to sell as vinegar is something that old-time winemakers would likely have thought was crazy. Sherry vinegar, for instance, is many hundreds of years old, but was never actively sold in shops until the 1930s. 

If you don’t already know it, the name of the wine is pronounced “CHA-koh-lee.” It’s made mostly from the indigenous Basque grape variety, Hondarribi Zuri. The wine is fresh, light, a bit honeyed, maybe, without really being sweet. When you get the Txakoli in its vinified state it’s very lightly sparkling. It’s a fresh wine for everyday drinking, not one of those fancy, big flavors that are made for long aging. Txakoli is typically served in short, flat-bottomed glasses and is consumed in large quantities in the tapas bars in the Basque Country.  

These newly arrived vinegars come from one of the region’s best-known wineries, the Bodega Talai Berri. The winery is just outside the town of Zarautz, a short drive to the west of San Sebastian, and about half an hour east of Ondarroa, the small coastal town that’s home to the Ortiz family who make such marvelous tinned tuna, sardines, and anchovies. Zarautz has long been a resort destination. The long sandy beaches look beautiful—like a place I’d love to be magically transported to next Tuesday. Since that isn’t going to happen, I’m gonna have to settle for reading about it and tasting the vinegar. 

The first of the Talai Berri vinegars is straight-up Txakoli—light amber in color, lively, lightly nutty. Delicately flowery aroma and a nice clean, long finish. I’ve been sipping it to start my dinner on the right foot. It’s nice on simple salads of most any sort. Very good with seafood. Super on sardines—open a tin, sprinkle on a bit of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and then some of the Txakoli vinegar. Let it sit for a few minutes and eat. Soak up any leftover liquid with bread. The second offering is lightly sweetened—wine vinegar fortified with a bit of sweet grape must. It’s also terrific, and probably more to the taste of those who are inclined to the sweeter side of things. Great on salads, bean dishes, with pork, or poultry. Either will serve as a superb “secret” ingredient to add quiet but meaningful depth to the flavors of your food. Enjoy! As they say in the Basque Country, “You know much if you know how to live.” 

Order online from the Deli and enjoy at home!
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Jakes's Cake from Zingerman's Bakehouse, plated with berries

Jake’s Cake from the Bakehouse

Angel Food Cake to celebrate the start of strawberry season

 

A Bakehouse favorite from many years ago, it's named after Amy's son Jake, who's all grown up now, but still loves this cake. It's soft, fluffy, sweet, and light—"pillowy,” the bakers at the Bakehouse like to say—heavenly angel food cake made with lots of fresh egg whites, cane sugar, a small bit of flour, a touch of cream of tartar, and lots of vanilla extract and vanilla bean. I can still vaguely remember Angel Food cake from my childhood. My mother surely bought it from a bakery, or more than likely, the supermarket. But I know it better now as an adult because of the very good version that we make at the Bakehouse. And because it marries so marvelously with berries. 

Angel Food’s name pretty clearly came from its delicate lightness. A cake angels might eat. Although some will say I’m sure it must have come down from heaven, culinary historians don't seem to agree on its origins. Many credit Pennsylvania Dutch bakers. Others argue it was invented in the American South. Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book: and Companion for Frugal and Economical Housekeepers by M. E. Porter in 1871 has a recipe for “Snow-drift Cake,” which was pretty much the same thing. (Funny that a Southern cookbook has a recipe named after snowdrifts?) Many historians agree that the invention of the egg beater in the 1860s increased its popularity. If it did come from the South, it’s likely that it was developed and perfected by enslaved women. In The American Pastry Cook, Jessup Whitehead back in 1894, says it came from St. Louis. And, he says, it was shipped from St. Louis all over the country, and even all the way to London.

In her 1881 cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc., Abby Fisher, a former slave who’d moved to San Francisco after Emancipation, calls it “Silver Cake.” I love that. To get the full context, the recipe on the top of the same page is “Gold Cake.” Gold cake is made with egg yolks. Silver Cake starts with the egg whites you’d have set aside when you’re “going for the gold.” Her recipe uses butter, and calls for almond or peach extract. Mrs. Fisher had quite a business selling pickles and sauces in San Francisco and was a well known local culinary authority. She had taken home a diploma from the state fair in Sacramento a few years before the book came out. The book was published by the very progressive Women’s Co-operative Printing Office. 

Coming back to our present moment, I wanted to write about Jake's Cake this week because we’ve entered the all too short Michigan strawberry season. And what I love best about Angel Food—or maybe I’ll say silver—cake is that it goes great with berries. Just clean your strawberries and cut them in half. Add a small bit of sugar. Let the juices come out for an hour or so. Ladle the berry mix over slices of the cake. Eat. If you want to live on the edge add a little black pepper. They don’t do it in St. Louis and Mrs. Fisher didn’t mention it, but I think strawberries and pepper make a really fine combination! Either way, eat up! Enjoy! 

Jake's Cake at the Bakeshop
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Nachos with pulled pork at Zingerman's Roadhouse

Nachos at the Roadhouse 

American history all in a tasty platter of nachos

 

Two weeks ago I knew next to nothing about nachos. I can’t say I even particularly liked them. They only came to my mind because Roadhouse head chef Bob Bennett did the work to create a really good, high-quality version. I liked it—Tex-Mex seemed a good addition to the Roadhouse specials list. And since there are dozens of versions, they’re very versatile, too.

But there was a lot, lot more I didn’t know. Nachos, now served all over the U.S. in fast food spots, bars, ballparks, and restaurants were originally invented in the Mexican town of Piedras Negras. It happened in 1943. It was two years into the American entry into WWII, and two years before it ended. Franklin Roosevelt was president. The U.S. armed forces, fighting for freedom all over the world were still segregated—segregation didn’t end until 1948, over 80 years after the end of the Civil War. It’s rarely talked about in the U.S., but Mexico was active in the war on the side of the allies.  

In 1943, a dozen or so Army wives crossed the border from Eagle Pass, Texas into the town of Piedras Negras. Looking for a late meal, they happened into the Victory Club restaurant. The kitchen was closed, but the maître d’, in a piece of great service work that would fit in really well here at Zingerman’s, decided to put something together for them. His name was Ignacio Anaya. His nickname was “Nacho”—short for Ignacio. He created a platter of fried pieces of tortilla, topped with cheese and chiles. Doing a great job with the in-the-moment, improvisational creativity that’s called for pretty much every day in the food business, he named them after himself—Nacho’s Especiales. Later, Anaya worked at the Moderno restaurant, which is open today, and had his own place, called Nacho's Restaurant in Piedras Negras. He passed away in 1975.  

The historical basis for Nacho’s creative solution could well have been the Zapotec totopo or Oaxacan tlayuda. Both are flatbreads that were used to put toppings on. Nachos gradually gained popularity across Texas. In 1960, Anaya’s son tried to get some sort of copyright for his father’s work but was told it was too late. "I talked to a lawyer in San Antonio. He said there's not much you can do after 17 years. It's in the public domain.” 

In the modern American context, “nachos” actually became famous because of baseball. In 1975, one Frank Liberto of Rico’s Products in Texas, “invented” a melted cheese sauce that could be poured onto tortilla chips from a pump spout and the now ubiquitous ballpark nachos were born. 

A few weeks ago, Bob got to work to make a Roadhouse version of nachos. He ended with something really good. Freshly fried tortilla chips. Housemade pork chorizo. Beans from Camellia in New Orleans. A creamy cheese sauce made with handmade Monterey Jack from Vella Cheese in Sonoma (one of only two places in the country that still make it), and a homemade pico de gallo salsa. 

A few weeks later, in the spirit of Ignacio Anaya’s creativity, we shifted to a different version—BBQ nachos, made with chips, pulled pork, Camellia beans, and more of that marvelous Monterey Jack cheese.  

Ok, one more history note. The Monterey Jack we use at the Roadhouse is generally referred to by the staff using the name of the man—Ig Vella—who made it for so many years. His family came from Sicily to California and his father started the dairy in 1931. His nickname was Ig, but his formal name was the Italian version of the same name as Ignacio Anaya, whose nickname you know already was “Nacho.” The origin of Monterey Jack cheese also goes back to Mexico—it’s descended from the cheese made famous by David Jacks, a Goldrush-era Scotsman, who adapted the Mexican queso blanco (which was, of course, an adaption of Spanish queso blanco) which had been made in the Franciscan missions in California. The cheese originally was known as Monterey Jack’s with an “s.” The “s” got lost, just as the apostrophe in “Nacho’s” was lost as well. 

Available for pickup or local delivery from the Roadhouse!

Other things on my mind

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this enews and you know someone else who might like it, please pass it along. Have questions about Zingerman’s? Write us at info@zingermans.com.
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