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Ari's Top 5

 

This is the beginning of cultural evolution, as people began to respond to the environments they found themselves in. Environment, imagination, and spiritual necessity came together in beautiful patterns of human culture.

—Jason Kirkey
 

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How Food and Cooking Changed My Life

Our work can alter our sense of the world

Jason Kirkey says, “Each of us tells a story about our life.” What follows is part of mine. Not surprisingly, it’s a story that’s centered around food. 

Serhiy Ivanchuk’s story is about song. Ivanchuk is a 29-year-old Ukrainian and an aspiring opera singer. When Russia invaded his country on February 24, he volunteered to help, and ended up working as a driver ferrying people and pets, under cover of darkness, from the front lines near Kharkiv to the safety of the country’s southwest. Three weeks into his new role, the car he was driving suddenly came under fire from Russian troops. No one else in the car was hit, but Ivanchuk—shot five times—was seriously wounded. Fortunately for him, one of the women he was driving to safety happened to be a physician. With the help of others in the car, she saved his life. Last week, after many surgeries and hard work in rebab in Germany, he began to sing again. “At first, I was the one saving them,” Ivanchuk said. “But as it turned out, in the end, they saved me.”

Reflecting on Ivanchuk’s story, I realized that this sort of role reversal—where the one “doing the rescuing” later turns out to be the one who is saved—is a way to see the story of my life as well. In my case, it wasn’t a physician sitting in the back seat. Instead, it was traditional food and cooking that helped me to get to the life I’m living today. Although the situations are certainly not the same—Ivanchuk’s life was literally at risk; for me, it was a spiritual issue—the rhyming of this role reversal struck me similarly. Back in 1982, I committed myself to work to help to preserve and promote traditional foodways in the U.S. All these years later, I realize that traditional food has done far more for me, than I have ever done for it. I set out to help make a difference in the food world, but I see now that it was more accurately food that saved me. 

Though the problems in the food world back when we started the Deli might not have seemed as urgent as what’s going on right now in Ukraine, they were—and still are—hugely important. They are clearly connected to what writer Charles Eisenstein calls “the economics of separation”: “A story of separation of the human realm from the natural, in which the former expands and the latter is turned progressively into resources, goods, property, and ultimately money.” We couldn’t have explained it elegantly as Eisenstein has, but that is essentially what we set out to help address back in 1982. 

At the time, nearly every aspect of traditional foodways in the U.S. was endangered. Industrial food had come to dominate the market. The number of farmers, cheesemakers, etc. was decreasing by the week. Fresh local food was very hard to find, especially in urban areas. Old school producers, exhausted by a constant push for lower prices, were abandoning their craft to get jobs working for big companies. Low prices, consistency, long shelf lives, and standardization were the stories of the day. Eisenstein says, “Stories give meaning and purpose to life and therefore motivate action.” We wanted to tell the story of the artisans and their food, and in the process change the story to one where full flavor, connection with the seasons and soil, and a commitment to traditional foodways would become the headlines. Traditional food seemed like a cause worth fighting for—a cause in which we could make a positive difference.

In essence, without really knowing exactly what we were doing, our work was about reconnection, or as Eisenstein says now, an “economics of reunion.” For the last 40 years, we’ve been doing our best to bring back full flavor, and healthier community and ecological impacts that go with it.

My friend Natalie Chanin, the amazing Alabama craftswoman, writes in her beautiful new book, Embroidery: Threads and Stories, “Our stories, should we tell them, all share those dark nights of the soul, but also the clear morning light that rises.” My experience wasn’t that extreme but, eventually, a clear morning gradually came and it was the cause of good food that helped me get there. It restored my spirit to wholeness and reconnected me with a natural world that I hadn’t even understood I was missing out on. The headline of the New York Times article about Ivanchuk was: “5 Russian Bullets Dashed an Opera Singer’s Dreams. Then He Reclaimed His Voice.” For me, it might be “Smart City Kid Struggles to Find His Way in the World. Then Food Saved His Ass!”

As many of you know, I was raised mostly on a mid-20th century industrial American diet featuring an array of cans, boxes, and items pulled from the freezer. Middle-class culture meant that I wasn’t deprived of “things” or education or support, but I was, I see now, completely disconnected from nature. I had almost no sense of seasonality or soil, nor, I can say all these decades later, my own sense of self or spirit. Studying, cooking, and committing myself to the cause of traditional foodways changed everything. Sitting here writing in 2022, it’s impossible to imagine my life without it. As Carl Jung once said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” I hope that food and cooking in Ann Arbor are better because of our work at Zingerman’s, but I know for a fact that my life is better for working with food. 

I’m certainly not the only one who has experienced this sort of thing. Vishwesh Bhatt, another friend from down South, will be here next week from Mississippi to cook a special dinner at the Roadhouse (there are still seats—do NOT miss this meal and very special human being). In his new book, I Am From Here, Vish writes, “Cooking is my profession, of course. But it defines so much of who I am. It’s how I interact with my family and friends. It’s how I learn about cultures other than my own. It’s how I make sense of the world and my place in it.” 

Theologian Thomas Berry once said, “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.” I wasn't, at the time I began working with food, trying to find my way free of that old story. I was really just looking for a way to pay my bills, but traditional food and cooking gave me, in Thomas Berry’s context, a new story; a story to live out with purpose, a story I could contribute to. Food connected me creatively with myself, and, for the first time in my life, in a meaningful way with the natural world. 

Jason Kirkey is an author and a poet, who grew up on the Atlantic coast of Massachusetts. His book, The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality, has been hugely helpful to me in understanding just why this kind of connection (or reconnection) is so critical, not just to our own lives, but to the health of everything of which we are a part—our families, our companies, our communities, and, of course, the entire planet. Writing about the challenged state of the world in which we are all living right now, Kirkey says,

Our crisis is one of ecology and psychology—and it is this knowledge which motivates me to write, to tell stories, and to craft poetry. This is my form of activism and disobedience against industrial culture. Any creative act can become activism and the roots of social change can come from anywhere as long as they are grounded in an interior revolution of consciousness. We must find not only a new way of thinking but a new way of being.

Food gave me that way of being. It connected me to seasons, to the soil, to craft, to the rich diversity and natural complexity of the planet. It helped me to engage with my senses, to experience awe and wonder in a whole new way. Food offered me the understanding that the real world was changing by the second. That beauty is everywhere. It helped me to slow down, and to learn humility. It helped me to get my spirit centered, my mind right, and it got me to write. It helped me understand that you and I were not, as industrial society had instructed me, here to manage the planet, but just one small part of it.

In the spirit of reciprocity and equity, my relationship with food has, in a sense, been a partnership. In the same way that my partnership with Paul changed my life, so too the connection with food has opened doors to creative, caring contributions. Because of my experience with food, I see, feel, smell, and experience the world in a radically different way than I could ever have done without it. Jason Kirkey describes this phenomenon in a beautiful way:

It is much like one who sees a rainbow—knowing the natural mechanism by which rainbows occur she sees a spectrum of visible light as the sun filters through drops of water in the air. She might completely miss the beauty and the subjective interplay between the rainbow and herself.

The impact of seeing things in this way has been enormous. Food got me out of my head, gave me a way to connect, and make a positive difference in the process. As Jason Kirkey writes, “Through deep and reciprocal relationship and identification with nature we become, or rather return to being, more fully alive and human.” Food and cooking have helped me to regain access to the soulful sensibility with which every human is born, but that family pressure and social norms can crush. It connected me to myself, to others, and to the planet of which I am such a teeny tiny piece. Food brought me to writing and it eased me out of the comfortable cocoon of my shyness and awkwardness. 

Jason Kirkey reminds us that “The sacred world is before us right now and in every moment—we merely have to remember how to see it.” In this sense, food gave me back the sight I didn’t even know I had lost. Food has helped me stay focused and hold course—I don’t want to let it down by doing the wrong thing, by compromising quality where we shouldn't, by giving in to market pressure to drop prices by using lesser ingredients, or hiding mediocrity under cover of fancy presentation. It’s not always easy, but as one would in any healthy, committed long-term relationship, I have learned to stick with stuff through thick and thin. Over time, I experienced what Jason Kirkey describes: “We look and we look and perhaps we see nothing. One day, our practice comes to fruition—we see in a new way!! But we are not seeing anything new; it was there all along. We have simply shifted our gaze and suddenly the world comes back to life.” If and when we can reverse that flow, we can begin to heal ourselves and the world around us. This is the story of what food and cooking have done for me.

In the process, I have gotten significantly more connected to the natural world. A kid who loved concrete and Kraft macaroni and cheese now embraces the complexity of the natural world and craft maccheroni. Someone for whom seasons were mostly about school and sports who now waits anxiously for the first new potatoes each spring, the annual arrival of First Flush Darjeeling, or the wonderfully peppery late autumn Astro arugula Tammie is bringing home right now. Someone who was raised on pre-sliced bread now notices how each loaf of Country Miche from the Bakehouse is, just like you and me, a bit different every day. 

This is not, to be clear, a suggestion that there’s anything more special about me than any other human being in the world. To the contrary, this is a call to make common cause, to create organizations in which this sort of changing of stories can happen to anyone and everyone we engage with. It’s an invitation for anyone interested to explore and maybe even embrace what might become a vocation. For me it was food, for you, it might be banking, baking, basketball, or driving a bus. It could be art, or architecture, or anarchism. The point is that if things go well, that work could help us connect with the world that lets us be ourselves and helps us heal the world around us in the process.

Coming back to the idea of story, Jason Kirkey encourages us to be open to ones—“new folktales” he calls them—in which each of us will be able to live in more engaged, more ecologically connected, and spiritually sound ways. I have a long way to go to make my story sounder still, but I’m deeply grateful to my connection with traditional food and cooking for what it has given me. Kirkey says, 

We might see the old stories, the ones that do not quite fit anymore, the ones we could only tell ourselves to the detriment of ourselves. The new story is … one that we will participate in the making of. … to reinvent ourselves into ecological beings we must reinvent the stories by which we understand our places, oikos, our homes.
Food has given me that opportunity. To start to heal an unhealthy relationship with nature. To find a place I feel at home in even when I mostly feel awkward most of the time in most of the world, a place to exist as an ecological being. As Kirkey writes, “Do not be surprised if you hear the bushes singing; if you hear, behind you, quiet footsteps or the sweetest songs. … You only have to listen and let yourself be taken.” I remind myself, and maybe you, that being “taken” in this way, letting life be changed as mine has been through food, as Jason Kirkey’s has with Celtic culture, as Natalie Chanin’s has with sewing, and Vishwesh Bhatt’s has been with cooking in the American South, takes time. The insight, for me at least, did not come in an instant. It has taken patience, persistence, and many years of work to let myself be saved. It also takes some trust. It will come.

One important contributor to the health of any long-term relationship is to continue to express and experience appreciation, as Paul always says, long after the initial glamor has worn off. Perhaps then this essay is my way of saying thanks to food and cooking for helping me make my way back to where I ought to have been all along. When I reflect back on the last 44 years, I hope that there is a bit more flavorful food in the world, that a few more artisans and craftspeople are able to make a living; that a few more Americans know more about the beauty of what amazing real food, slow food, natural food can be, and that their lives might possibly have been made a small bit better in the process. I know that mine has. Thank you all for being patient and supportive as I’ve been figuring it out.

Back when I was a kid, the tomatoes we ate came from supermarkets. We had them on the table pretty much every day of the year, and they tasted the same at the height of summer as they did in late December. Like Serhiy Ivanchuk after he was shot, they were unable to sing. As I’m writing, we have the last two of Tammie’s “Gold Medal” tomatoes of the year sitting elegantly on our counter. Each is an almost miraculous coming together of seeds, seasons, soil, water, and countless hours of hard work. They are a gorgeous, golden-orange-red, like the loveliest of sunsets. When we cut into them, I know that their flavor and aroma will be astounding. When we eat them, Tammie and I will savor every bite, our connection to each other, to the planet, to being a small part of something mysterious and much bigger than ourselves. They sing beautifully and loudly in much the same way that Serhiy Ivanchuk, released from the hospital, is again singing arias. By the end of this week, the tomatoes will be gone, but the song they sing, and the knowledge they bring, will last a lifetime.
More of my beliefs about cooking

P.S. The current issue of Zingerman’s News has a piece on “Mindful Eating,” which is one way to establish this sort of practice. 

P.P.S. An invitation again to join me and Katie Frank at the Zingerman’s Experience seminar next month where we can explore this together. Jason Kirkey writes, “The problem lies not in the industrial process itself but in the industrial process’ complete divorce from ecological constraints and the laws of nature.” It’s not then, I suppose, a coincidence that engaging with food in this way helped me arrive at what we have to call the Natural Laws of Business, around which this seminar is shaped.

a jar of Séka Hills Pure California Wildflower Honey

Séka Hills
Wildflower Honey

Exceptional dark caramelly honey
from the hills of northern California

I’m thinking about honey in part because it’s a long-standing Jewish tradition to eat it on Rosh Hashanah, symbolic of inviting in a sweet New Year! Honey is associated with Biblical manna. In our part of the world—and in Eastern Europe where my grandparents came from—honey was paired with the seasonal fruit, which would have been, and still is, apples. Happily, there are plenty of terrific heirloom apples out at the farmers markets right now! 

True varietal honey is one of the best examples I can offer of the beauty and benefit that my relationship with traditional food—food as it has been for most of human history—has given me. Honey, for me growing up, was sweet but simplistic. For a lot of folks, it still is. Pasteurized honey in the supermarket is to Séka Hills’ honey what American singles are to farmhouse cheddar. I’m not a big sweets eater, but real honey has become an important part of my life. It brings me back to nature in the best possible way—different blossoms in different parts of the world yield totally different honeys; and even more surprisingly to someone with an industrial mindset, honey from bees feeding on the same flower, but in different parts of the world, will taste different too. Rosemary honeys I’ve had from the south of France taste drastically different from the ones I’ve had from Spain. 

Honeys like these also remind me how interconnected we all are—the Séka Hills honey is a product of a collaboration between the Native Yoche Dehe/Wintun people and longtime local beekeeper John Foster. Foster seems an ideal partner. The third generation to manage his family’s hives across the region, he cares deeply about both community and traditional beekeeping work. 

Designer Jim Guerard, who did the label, has been working to help the tribe to move forward, caringly and effectively building on tradition in ways that are appropriate and viable for the age in which we live: 

Many of the northern California tribes became nearly extinct by the early 20th century, and those that survived lost much of their language and culture. Tribes are struggling with reinvigorating their languages and customs; a daunting task to say the least. In Yocha Dehe’s case, they’ve been rebranding themselves (if you’ll excuse the phrase) and creating an identity as a 21st century people that, while looking forward, are striving to maintain their traditional values in everything they do.

Honey, like this wildflower honey from northern California, serves as an invitation to reconnect with the natural world. Varietal honeys are food at their best. Barely altered at all by human intervention, they are exceptional eating as is. Eat some with apples for Rosh Hashanah, on toast, on a Bakehouse Zinglish Muffin, or in your coffee. Or do what I do and eat a spoonful, straight from the jar, before I head out to run. However you have it, take a minute to reflect and appreciate all of what has gone into making it what it is.

Try it for yourself
P.S. If you’re interested in learning how beekeeping is a marvelous metaphor for good management, check out Secret #26.
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a side view of a loaf of Moroccan challah on a wooden cutting board with a navy tea towel

Moroccan Challah
from the Bakehouse

A great way to start the New Year
with a taste of North Africa

In learning all that I have about food over the years, I have had many amazing teachers. One of the best has been Joan Nathan. Her 1979 book, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, was a great, go-to source for me and Paul when we were doing our original recipe work back in the first few months of 1982. Later, her Jewish Cooking in America was a big help in our work at the Roadhouse—we still make New Mexico-rooted Sephardic Short Ribs, and her Sweet Potato Tsimmes with Chiles regularly! One of the many things Joan has taught us was about this Moroccan Challah. When I first learned of it, we had no way to make it. The bakeries we were buying from weren’t interested. All these years later, the Bakehouse—led by Amy, Frank (before he retired two years ago), and now Jaison—is exactly the kind of place that loves to find these sorts of old foods and bring them back alive in our Ann Arbor context. 

Morocco’s Jewish community goes back nearly 2000 years, predating the arrival of Islam in North Africa by about six centuries. The size of the Jewish community increased significantly 1500 years later when Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition and sought safety on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. There are long, strong traditions of cooking, music, writing, and art in the Moroccan Jewish community. This Moroccan Challah is called pain petri (“kneaded bread”) because the women who made it traditionally spent a lot of time kneading the dough to achieve a smooth, light loaf. They formed the bread at home and then baked it in public ovens, a practice that lived on in Morocco until recent years. (This idea of bringing dough to the local bakery is still happening. Amy told me that we had someone bring some to the Bakehouse the other day!) The seeds make it special—it has a lovely dusting of sesame, poppy, and anise seeds to add spice and sweetness. 

The Moroccan Challah is a lovely way to grace your New Year's table, and really just a great thing to eat! It’s terrific if you use it for dipping into a plate of great olive oil and honey. Makes really nice toast brushed with olive oil. Or make a saffron butter and spread some of that on top! As my work with food has taught me countless times now over the years, the Moroccan Challah offers all of us a lovely way to experience another culture and eat well in the process.

You can get the Moroccan Challah at the Bakeshop and Deli. 

Ship some Moroccan Challah to your mother-in-law
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gelfilte fish on a white plate with three carrot flowers

Gefilte Fish from the Deli

A taste of the Eastern European
Jewish holiday kitchen

From the west coast of North Africa, I’m shifting my attention up to the cooking of the long-standing Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Gefilte fish is a piece of Jewish culinary culture that I grew up with, one that connects me, and maybe you, back to where my family came from. Mimi Sheraton called it “Part of the holy trinity of [Ashkenazi] Jewish holiday eating: chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish.” (We have all three of them at the Deli, and more!)

You don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy it, and you certainly don’t need to celebrate the Jewish New Year. In fact, its roots might be outside the Jewish culture. Culinary historian Gil Marks suggests, interestingly, that gefilte fish’s origins were actually in Christian communities in Eastern Europe back in the Middle Ages—it was apparently widely eaten during Lent. Jews adapted it from there. Because it was made in advance, it honored the prohibition against cooking and working on the Sabbath and it fit the long-standing Jewish tradition of eating fish for holidays. Two other things to know about gefilte fish that go against commonly-held beliefs:

#1—Gefilte fish is good! Put in the context of world cuisine, if you’re into classical French cooking, gefilte fish is basically just the Jewish version of quenelles—fish dumplings. If you put it on the menu of a fancy French restaurant, it would probably get all sorts of positive attention!

#2—Gefilte fish isn’t really a formal or required part of religious observance. That said, there is an old Jewish saying: “Without fish, there is no Sabbath.” Back in the 19th century, shtetl fish was bought live at the market on Thursdays, or in the case of Rosh Hashanah, a couple days before the holiday. In fact, my great-grandfather was a fish seller in his hometown of Wolcowisc in Belarus.

Truly, this is an appetizer that everyone could and should try. Made with fresh lake fish and spiced with sea salt and white pepper—the fish is freshly ground in the Deli kitchen, and then poached in homemade fish broth.

As a young teenager still living in Lithuania in the 1870s, Emma Goldman begged her conservative father to let her continue her education. Instead, he angrily threw her French book into the fire and scolded: “All a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefilte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children.” Decades later, having become one of the most progressive thinkers in the Western world, Emma did end up learning to cook. Emmy Eckstein, who knew Emma in the 1930s, said, “You know by now what a wonderful cook she is.” Anarchist Kate Wolfson tells of visiting Emma in St. Tropez in 1931 and staying at a cottage nearby: “In the evening Emma came to visit us with homemade gefilte fish.” What we make at the Deli is, I have a feeling, pretty close to what Emma Goldman would have been making.

Order your gefilte fish from the Deli soon!
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More Stuff for
Rosh Hashanah

An array of New Year’s foods across the ZCoB

Deli

Here are some of the offerings. Check out the full menu.

Chopped Liver – My grandmother’s recipe! Great as an appetizer or spread on a thick slice of hand-cut Bakehouse Challah.

Chicken Broth – Long-simmered, sans salt. Ready to heat, salt, and serve!

Matzo Balls – Formed by hand using the marvelous matzoh meal from the wacky and wonderful people at the Matzoh Project.

Lamb and Rosemary Honey Stew – This is a recipe I did years ago for the Guide to Good Eating and we’re still making it twenty years later. The hard-to-find rosemary honey gives it a great depth and saffron makes it more special still. If you want to make it at home it’s on page 378 in the book. 

Plus Braised Beef Brisket, Whole Roasted Amish Chicken, Carrot Tzimmes, Lemon Couscous, Kugel, Knishes, and much more!
 

Bakehouse

Buckwheat Honey Cake – The dark deliciousness of buckwheat honey brings a beautiful blend of bold and sweet. 

Apple Rétes – Traditional Hungarian “strudel” made from Paula Red and Ida Red apples. Buy a whole “log” of it and bake it off fresh for dessert while your family is eating their main course.

Round Challahs — With or without raisins soaked in Myers Dark Rum.

Eve’s Apple Babka – This stuff is selling like crazy, which tells me it’s probably a surefire hit on your holiday table! 

Chocolate Babka – Rich, buttery brioche dough, painted with dark chocolate, sprinkled with chocolate crumble and orange syrup-soaked raisins. Babka French toast is really terrific too if you want a good breakfast the next morning to keep things going.

Mail Order

A host of good things to ship out for the High Holidays all the way through ’til Yom Kippur. Not everything I wrote about here can be shipped but a good bit of it can! Order up for a friend who could use a New Year’s boost! Click here to order up!
 

Roadhouse

Creole Matzo Ball Soup — From our friend Marcie Cohen Ferris’ fantastic book Matzo Ball Gumbo. Gently spicy and certainly delicious.

Chopped Liver — Chicken livers puréed with onions, hard-boiled eggs, and a touch of Tabasco. Topped with delicious dark-caramelized onions.

Sephardic Short Ribs — Another recipe we learned from Joan Nathan. Pasture-raised beef short ribs braised with citrus, onions, apricots, prunes, and those terrific New Mexico green chiles. (I’m fascinated by the history of Converso Jews in New Mexico.) Served over Carolina Gold rice.

Georges Banks Haddock & Organic Tunisian Couscous — Sautéed haddock served over Mahjoub family’s hand-rolled, sun-dried couscous. Served with fresh arugula and a roasted carrot and ginger sauce.

Available September 25-27 for dine-in and pick-up.
 

Candy Store 

Rosh Hashanah Family-Sized Zzang! Bars – A great host gift, a terrific post-dessert sweet to savor with coffee and good conversation!

Send a little sweetness someone's way

Other Things on My Mind


The annual Zingerman’s-Moosejaw sale happens on Sunday, September 25 from 10 am-6 pm at Cornman Farms! Starting at noon, there’ll be Kieron’s Fish & Chips. Order in advance online.
 

Listening

Amy Emberling from the Bakehouse did a great podcast with the folks at “Have You Eaten Yet?

We’ve been listening to the music of Florist and Emily Sprague. Because Blu the rescue dog is doing so well, Tammie has the song “If Blue Could Be Happiness” happily on repeat!
 

Reading

Tamsin Wooley-Barker’s Teeming. Organizational learnings from a biologist who uses ecosystem learnings to model collaborative, non-hierarchical, methodologies.

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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