Ari's Top 5
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.

Brené Brown
A black and white photo of a loaf of bread with cracks in the crust, held by a hand with an imperfect fingernail

An Imperfect Look at Natural Law #19

Honoring our inevitable imperfections

John O’Donohue wrote, “The primary world that each of us has to do with is the world that is invisible, that is the interior world within us.” He reminds us, “No one else sees your life in the way that you do.”

Here’s a glimpse at a small snippet of mine: I really like working on this enews. It pushes me to get clear on my thoughts, and to share those thoughts in a moderately coherent form, all on a very strict (by my choosing) schedule. I’m very happy I do it and it’s taught me so much over the past three or four years. I hope it’s done some of the same for you. That said, each week when I work on it, my anxiety increases. It’s the same sort of experience, I would imagine, that an athlete goes through before a game, or a musician when they’re going out on stage. The timing is always tight. I turn it in Monday afternoon, we go through three rounds of edits and a fair few proofs, and then it hits your inboxes some time on Wednesday afternoon. En route, my anxiety, again, rises and falls regularly. I frequently want to stop. I worry about how bad it will be, how it might not make sense, how I’ll have made mistakes. I hear the same from pretty much every friend who does similar work. Nearly all of us have the fear that we don’t really know what we’re doing, that we aren’t good enough to get it done, and/or that others will realize all that. I try to remind myself what Stephen Pressfield said in The War of Art: “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), ‘Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?’ chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to steer clear of the worry before it completely overtakes my work. Seth Godin describes all this well in his newest book, The Practice. The point, he makes clear, is to push ahead, to get your work out into the world. Which, by definition, makes us vulnerable, in the best possible ways. Still, every Wednesday afternoon I wait, anxiously, to see what will happen. Nearly every week, nice comments start coming in that somewhat diminish my self-doubt. But all that said, I wouldn’t say that doing this is an exercise in equanimity.

Last week the first email that came in was the kind I have angst about. I’d made a mistake. The note I got wasn’t long, and it was quite polite. The problem? I’d attributed the quote at the top of the piece to the poet Bessie Anderson Stanley. It was apparently from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ugh. That sinking feeling. Maybe you know it. I’d found the quote somewhere online and liked it a lot. I diligently looked up Ms. Stanley, who seemed to be an interesting and insightful late 19th and early 20th century poet from Kansas. I’m not sure anymore where I’d gotten it attributed to Ms. Stanley. Either way, I looked quickly online and saw that I’d screwed up.

The good news is, that although it used to take me days to talk myself off the emotional ledge, after years of practice, I can calm myself now pretty quickly. Last week, I did what I often do when I’m stressed. I went for a run. I was about ten minutes out when all of a sudden I burst out laughing. The beauty in the imperfection suddenly came clear. Like all good mistakes, there was a lesson to be learned and built on. I had to laugh. I’d already been thinking about the following week’s piece (which you’re reading right now), planning, perhaps to write about another of the new list of Natural Laws:

Natural law #19:
Everything—and every one of us—is imperfect.

We all know it’s true. The ironic, or maybe it’s just interesting, thing about this Natural Law is that while nearly all of us will quickly agree intellectually, most of us—starting with me—still have deep roots of perfectionism that pull us back in the other direction. As Tarthang Tulku writes, “Changing patterns formed early in life is one of the most difficult lessons to teach and to learn.”

What is perfectionism? Brené Brown, in her insightful book The Gifts of Imperfection, says,

Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.

Perfectionism is nothing if not persistent. We’ve all heard a hundred times that “Everyone makes mistakes.” We’ve surely said, to ourselves and others, many times, “We’re all human.” And yet, underneath those oft-repeated statements, many of us—like me—still have the roots of perfectionism deeply anchored below the surface. As sous chef Chris Chiapelli at the Roadhouse often says, “I’m not gonna lie.” It’s not an easy struggle.

A couple years ago I had what Stas’ Kazmierski taught us to call “a belated glimpse of the obvious” that helped me to embrace the concept more meaningfully. Nature, I realized, is also imperfect. And if nature was imperfect, then perfectionism is the pursuit of the unnatural. Working against nature, we know, is NOT a good idea. The whole point of understanding the Natural Laws is to work in harmony with nature . Because as Masanobu Fukuoka wrote, “If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.” The pitchfork of perfectionism is pain, increased stress, reduced creativity, diminished joys, an erosion of effectiveness. As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way, “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again.”

This is certainly not an isolated issue. The Harvard Business Review reports that:

There is growing evidence that the increase in psychological ill-health of young people may stem from the excessive standards that they hold for themselves and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in. …Young people are seemingly internalizing a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect.

So what does all this mean in everyday organizational life?

  • When we accept our inevitable imperfection, we can stop beating ourselves up for making mistakes. As Ram Dass (who I respect for both his humor and his wisdom) once said, “Your problem is you’re too busy holding onto your unworthiness.” Making peace with ourselves, is—I would suggest from personal experience—one of the hardest challenges we’ll ever undertake. It’s also one of the most important. As the Dalai Lama said, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

  • If we make peace with ourselves, our energy improves. The way we talk to ourselves will be manifested in the vibrational energy others pick up from us. If I’m berating myself for falling short, that critical voice is what others will “hear” even if I don’t say the words.

  • We can stop pushing our own pain onto others. Making peace with our own imperfections is a perquisite for meaningfully treating others with the dignity we know they deserve. Honoré de Balzac said, “Nothing is a greater impediment to being on good terms with others than being ill at ease with yourself.”

  • We can make peace with the past. This was one of the biggest learnings of my life, and one that many of us have gone through. Realizing that our parents were just flawed humans who didn’t really know what they were doing. Once I accepted that reality, I could let go of a lot of anger I had been unwittingly holding onto for far too long.

  • We can make peace with our peers. When people ask what has helped make my partnership with Paul work so well over all these years, I usually start by citing shared vision and values. On top of that, we have both worked hard, in our own ways, at improving—imperfectly, of course—our self-management. In the process, I believe, we have both worked to accept and embrace the inevitable, lovable, if at times annoying in the moment, imperfectness of the other. Being true to ourselves while letting our partners—or peers—be themselves is easier said than done, but I’ve come to believe it’s essential to making any long term relationship work. As Sam Keen said, “We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.”

  • We can let go of looking for “perfect leaders.” Peter Block writes:

    We are fascinated with our leaders. …The agenda this sustains is that leaders are cause and all others are effect. That all that counts is what leaders do. That leaders are the leverage point for building a better community. That they are foreground, while citizens, followers, players, and anyone else not in a leadership position are background. This is a deeply patriarchal agenda, and it is this love of leaders that limits our capacity to create an alternative future…

    The attention on the leader makes good copy; it gives us someone to blame and thereby declares our innocence. In its own way, it reinforces individualism, putting us in the stance of waiting for the cream to rise, wishing for a great individual to bring light where there is darkness. It is possible to admire and be inspired by great leaders, even bosses, but we need to resist the projection that they can produce a change in the conditions that concern us. Each of us is accountable for our small piece of creating better conditions. When we project that on a leader, power gets abused and disappointment is inevitable.

    Once I understood that those in charge—of the country, big companies, athletic teams, or whatever—were just flawed humans with huge jobs trying, imperfectly, to figure out what to do, my own stress went down. And I could focus much more effectively on taking care of what needed to be done. It’s not about being better bosses, it’s about simply starting to work on the issues at hand. As Howard Ehrlich explains, “Who will make the anarchist revolution? Everyone. Every day in their daily lives.”

  • We can more meaningfully include others. When we honor the natural reality that none of us have all the answers and that we stand to gain greatly by including others who see and understand what we don’t, then it becomes clear that bringing more and more people into our decision-making processes is a good way to go. None of us have all the answers. We all need help. As Peter Block believes: “This is a core quality of a hospitable community… to bring into play the gifts of all its members, especially strangers.”

  • We will stop “finding fault” as our default and learn to begin with beauty. Instead of starting by “fixing what’s wrong,” we can focus instead on what Peter Block calls our “gifts.” As he says, this “is in no way a denial of our limitations, just a recognition that they are not who we are. I am not what I am not able to do. I am what I am able to do—my gifts and capacities.” (The Appreciative Inquiry process is all about this—it’s a “search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. …to ‘inquire’ into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes.”)

  • We can normalize mistakes. My friend Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations shared that one of the posters they have on a wall at work says, “Make mistakes faster!” As Rich explains, “Making lots of small mistakes and correcting them quickly is far preferable to making big mistakes in secret.” I agree. I err every day, hopefully in smaller ways that can be caught by myself or my colleagues relatively quickly. If we own our mistakes we can help others around us learn from our lapses. As British sports psychologist Pippa Grange says, “Compost what you don’t need, it’s all learning.”

  • We will build resilience. Hiding flaws feeds our fear. Owning them builds strength. If we normalize our shortfalls, then we won’t freak out every time we encounter some failure or frustration. We learn to breathe deep and then move forward anyways.

  • We can stop letting our flaws turn us into “failures.” This was a big one for me. Carol Dweck describes this so well in Mindset. The person is not the behavior. While we fail regularly, we are not failures. When we share that message at work, we help folks feel better about themselves and embrace that we are all imperfect. Their inner peace and self-confidence grow, and along with it their creativity, their collaboration, and the quality of their work. Pippa Grange said, “You knew you’d still be loved whatever the outcome was you’d still be worth something. You wouldn’t be rejected, you wouldn’t be less. You would have had a failure in the moment, but you wouldn’t be less.”

  • Honoring our imperfection increases humility. Imperfection is implicit in the idea of humbleness. Much more about this in the “Humility” pamphlet!

  • We can be vulnerable. Sharing our own mistakes makes clear to others that it’s OK to own—and talk about—theirs. Embracing our imperfection makes it easier to be real. As Rabindranath Tagore tells us, “When I stand before thee at the day’s end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.”

  • It lets us be in the moment and take more pleasure in the little things. When we own that we will make mistakes and mess up, then we can stop letting those shortfalls keep us from appreciating the beauty that, even on our darkest days, is still all around us. As Brené Brown says, “The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”

  • We can get moving. I was just trying to help a coworker who’s writing a response to a customer complaint (which, of course, we get some of every day). She was feeling stuck, she said, and her mind was spinning in circles. She feels responsible for the error. She wants to make it right. Owning that we don’t have all the answers makes it easier to move forward. Ask for assistance. Breathe. Remember that in the same way that we made the mistake in the first place, we aren’t going to write the perfect response letter either. I told her that I could relate, and shared that I’d found it more effective to simply knock out a draft and then get input from peers to move it forward. As Julia Cameron says, “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.” The inverse gives us the clearance we need to just do it! A little later in the day she sent a lovely note of apology.

Does accepting Natural Law #19 mean letting go of the pursuit of excellence? Not at all! In fact, it frees us to push towards improvement much more productively. Instead of perfectionism, accepting our inevitable imperfections leads us to the pursuit of mastery. As Dr. Sarah Lewis writes, “Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of…perfectionism—an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. …Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.” Honoring our imperfections, allows us to make real the Japanese approach of Wabi Sabi—seeing the beauty in the imperfections that we all have, and that, despite our best efforts, will always be there. We can always improve, but we won’t ever, nature reminds us, be perfect. When we embrace our imperfection, we can live a calmer and more rewarding life. We can make more meaningful connections. We can make peace with ourselves and our partners. When we feel cynicism and frustration starting to rise, we stand a much better chance of seeing something good in the situation. My error in accreditation turned into some good new learning.

Here’s this lovely story from one of my favorite musicians, Texas-based folksinger, Sam Baker:

You may recall that last fall I cleared some land with the help of my neighbors. I ordered a Texas wildflower mix, planted the seeds and started to dream about how lovely everything would be in the spring. Well, things don’t always work out the way we planned. The birds enjoyed a lot of the seeds, there wasn’t much rain last year, and then there was the deep freeze in February… it didn’t turn out like I expected. But sometimes that happens. There is still some beauty there, just a different beauty. I enjoyed the exercise, and I might try again. The birds are happy. I suspect that some of the seed went to the wild turkeys.

He then wrote a poem about wild turkeys.

For more on self-management, see Part 3, Managing Ourselves and Part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business, or check out the ZingTrain session on Mindful Self-Management.
Sign up for Mindful Self-Management virtual training
A yellow bag of Uganda Rwenzori coffee beans

Uganda Rwenzori Coffee

New Coffee of the Month from East Africa

While so much has been turned topsy turvy over the last year, one thing that has provided comfort and consistency throughout has been the quality of the beans at the Coffee Company. In fact, I would venture to say, through all the ups and down of the last twelve months, the coffee has actually gotten better. The April Coffee of the Month—from the mountains of southwest Uganda—is pretty darned amazing.

Coffee originates to the north of Uganda in Ethiopia—it’s grown wild there for far longer than humans have been consuming it. Coffee is a relatively recent arrival in Uganda, essentially part of the same Industrial Age push to identify export crops that brought coffee to Central and South America. Today Uganda produces about 4% of the world’s coffee, tiny by the standards of say Brazil, but about four times where it was in the early years of the 20th century.

The Rwenzori mountains where these beans are grown are near the country’s western border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to the north of the Rwandan frontier. You’ll see the mountains on the map about halfway between Lake Stanley and Lake Edward, to the west of Lake Victoria (Africa’s largest lake). The mountains range up to 16,000 feet, and the coffee is grown in the lower (but still high) altitudes in the shade of banana trees, which protect the delicate coffee cherries from “burning” in the sun. The coffee is a “natural process”—dried in the sun—which concentrates the sweetness and the flavor in a way that I love.

Steve Mangigian, long time managing partner at the Coffee Company, says, “We immediately loved the fruitiness of this coffee. That’s what caught my attention. It exemplifies the characteristics of great East African coffee.” Juicy peach notes (speaking of which, the Peach Truck is coming to town this summer), maybe you could say even a bit of nectarine. It’s nicely chocolatey and terrifically tasty. It’s very good straight out of the Fetco pots at the Coffee Company, Roadhouse, and Deli. If you’re at the Coffee Company it is particularly chocolatey in a pourover and delicately delicious brewed in a syphon pot. Add a piece of the Bakehouse’s marvelous Mandelbread or a Big O Oatmeal Raisin cookie and bring a bit of beauty to your day!

Pick up a bag of Uganda Rwenzori from the Coffee Co.
Get a bag of Uganda Rwenzori from the Deli

The Pimento Cheese Capital of the Midwest

From the Masters to Michigan

If you’ve been watching the golfers at the Masters, or reading a bit of the background about the event in the news, you’ll likely have come across at least a mention or two of the pimento cheese sandwiches that have been a staple at the Tournament since the middle of the 20th century. Here at Zingerman’s, pimento cheese has been around for just a little over a decade. But it’s quickly reached nearly iconic proportions in our little community.

I learned about pimento cheese at a Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi back around the time of the last national crisis, the economic collapse of 2009. Like most of the foods we sell—other than chopped liver, chicken soup, corned beef, and rye bread—I’d never heard of it growing up. Not shocking for a Chicago kid—pimento cheese, up until the last few years, has mostly been a southern phenomenon. When I started to ask around, what I found was a food that was about as ubiquitous as potato salad, and far more popular. Everyone in the South, it seemed, had their own family recipe. Pimento cheese, best I could tell, was eaten regularly by people of all classes, all races, all religions… It was packed in school lunch boxes and was on the table at every social event.

We introduced pimento cheese first here a year or so later at the Roadhouse and got a really good response. A lot of locals were as confused about it as I had been on my first encounter, but slowly it gained a steady following. The next year it got its own t-shirt declaring: “Zingerman’s, Pimento Cheese Capital of the Midwest.” Soon we started making the same recipe we’d done for the Roadhouse at the Creamery, whence we now distribute it to shops and restaurants all over the country. We’ve won praise for the pimento cheese, including a plethora of kind comments from a good number of Southerners.

Pimento cheese dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It actually seems to have gotten its start in the North, when American cream cheese (back then, pretty much the hand crafted, stabilizer free, short-shelf-life, fresh product we craft at the Creamery still today) was blended with newly-arriving jarred roasted pimiento peppers from Spain. In the early years of the 20th century, Georgia farmers started to grow and bottle their own pimiento peppers. Over time the spread became an iconic food in the region. The Masters started selling pimento cheese sandwiches back in the 1950s—they hold up well in the heat, and aren’t all that hard to carry as you walk across the course. In a tribute to the Masters Tournament’s pimento cheese sandwiches, this seemed a good week to take pause to appreciate this little culinary marvel. To honor everyone in the ZCoB who makes it so diligently almost every day, and to appreciate all you—both in Ann Arbor and across North America—who come in to eat it, buy it to take home, and have it shipped to yourself or someone you love across the land.

If by some chance you still don’t know about pimento cheese, come by the Cream Top Shop, Roadhouse, Bakeshop, or Deli to give it a try. If you’re at the Roadhouse it’s incredible on a burger and great on the pimento cheese and bacon mac and cheese. (Or, if you want an insider tip, melted atop the chile cheese fries—ask for it when you’re there). Me, I often add a spoonful to those great Anson Mills grits, or the mashed potatoes. If you’re at the Deli we’ve got it by the pound. While I can’t speak to the quality of the golf courses up here, I have the quiet belief that our pimento cheese is, although we’re not in the South, pretty darned good. Here’s what national cheese expert and author, Tia Keenan offered up: "Pimiento (or Pimento) Cheese may be the ‘caviar of the south,’ but Midwest cheese church Zingerman’s nails this downhome delicacy: it’s a creamy, zippy bite, with a tickling heat that commands: Keep. Eating. …I usually make my own pimento cheese, but after having Zingerman’s version, I’ve retired, and I’m not upset about it.”

Pick up a pound at the Cream Top Shop, Deli, Roadhouse or Bakeshop, or let us ship some to wherever you live.

Grab Pimento Cheese from the Cream Top Shop
Pick up Pimento Cheese from the Deli
Ship Pimento Cheese
A round container of Belamandil fine sea salt, with a cork lid and an illustration of a shore bird on its white label.

Traditional Portuguese Sea Salt

 A small bit of saline loveliness from the South Coast

It’s over 20 years ago that I first visited the south of Portugal. I love the sun and I love the beach. It’s a beautiful place. In a sense though, what’s stayed with me most, is this wonderful traditional sea salt that we’ve been bringing to the Deli for nearly two decades now.

The company from whom we get it is known as Necton, led by João Navalho, a Mozambique-born Portuguese student of marine biology. He and a friend, Vitor Verdelho, got a grant to work with the country’s natural resources—and set out to see what they could do on 20 hectares of protected land in the National Park of Ria Formosa down in the Algarve. To this day, they’re producing an exceptionally delicate and delicious sea salt. They’ve gone to great lengths to care for the environment, for the traditions of the Portuguese salt harvesting culture, and the sea. They adamantly refuse to use any anti-caking agents or other additives. I’ve been a big fan of the salt ever since I first visited in the late 90s back when João and Vitor were just getting going.

The Algarve has been producing and exporting salt since at least the 11th century. At times, Portuguese salt has been called the best in Europe, but in the past century or so the area’s salt production fell prey to the efficiencies of the modern salt makers who switched to lower-cost mechanical drying and industrial production. João and his peers have worked with an older marnoto—those who tend the saltpans—to relearn and then revive, the Portuguese salt traditions of centuries past. They located and restored the old wooden hand rakes and other tools used in production. Their work has helped restore the local ecosystem, aiding in keeping the area’s outstanding birds—egrets, herons, and others—alive and active in the area. They’re focused on staying small, what author Bo Burlingham might call a “Small Giant” in the salt world! “We don’t want to be the salt kings,” João says. They just want to do the right thing. Necton has, over all these years, stayed very progressive in their business practices—staff ownership, ecological focus, profit sharing, etc.

Despite all those positives, getting this very good salt onto the market was no mean feat. Portuguese law, leaning heavily towards industrial salt use, essentially forbade the sale of pure, traditionally made sea salt. Only extensive efforts with government and EU offices got them through this industrially-oriented roadblock. We’re happy to be getting it still all these years later!

As with the French Fleur de Sel, their Flor de Sal (the one in the glass jar) is taken only from the first formations of sea salt across the top of the salt pans; it’s quite white in color, very gentle, and sweet in flavor. In centuries past, the Flor de Sal was the salt taken by the salt workers themselves for their own consumption at home. It’s long been referred to by locals as “the cream of the salt,” since it was the prime product skimmed from the top just as dairy farmers skimmed the richest cream off the top of the milk in the morning. It accounts for no more than 15 percent of total production. Like the cream, the Flor de Sal must be gathered daily.

In comparison to the French Fleur de Sel, the Portuguese product is perhaps a bit lighter, the flakes a touch smaller, and not as overtly identifiable in snowflake shape. Both are a delicate and delicious, traditional saline specialty. It’s exceptionally sweet, and it really does have a hint of violets in the aroma. It’s a wonderful way to make almost any dish remarkable. Sprinkle it onto toast, roasted vegetables when you bring them to the table, cut tomatoes when we reach that time of year. Because of the quality of the salt and the packaging both, it’s a terrific gift for anyone who loves good food.

Necton also harvests the “standard’’ sea salt from below the Flor de Sal every two to three weeks during the summer salt season. (Commercially-produced sea salt is allowed to build up all summer and taken off only once at the end of the season, the baked, rather than sun dried). Unlike the French Sel Gris (gray salt), they’re careful NOT to rake up sediment from the bottom of the pools. As a result, the salt is much whiter than its French counterpart, more akin to the Flor de Sal. (Most industrial sea salt is bleached to make it white—in Necton’s case, it’s a completely natural offering.) Wonderful for all your cooking needs.

Pick up Portuguese Sea Salt from the Deli
Ship Portuguese Flor de Sal Sea Salt
A slice of toast with nut butter, honey, cracked pepper, and hazelnuts on top, sitting on a blue plate

Hazelnut Butter and Tupelo Honey on Bakehouse Toast

Beautiful way to start your day

Back in 1982 when we were opening the Deli, we were, I’ve come to realize, part of a revolution in the American food world. To be clear, we had no idea that it was happening, and the idea of joining the front line of a revolution in the food world was not front of mind for me or Paul. We just wanted to start a cool, one of a kind little deli that would deliver amazing food and service experiences and that would offer the few folks we might employ a really great place to work. Thirty-nine years ago, we were entering our second month in business. It’s hard to remember much about what was actually going on. It’s safe to say that I could never have imagined back then, standing in our little 1300-square-foot corner store, just how much the food world would have changed. Or that items that were of a quality that Paul and I were only starting to even understand, and had no idea how to actually import, would be readily available and, relatively, widely accepted. Extra virgin olive oil, artisan cheese, hearth baked bread, naturally converted long aged vinegar… for most of the country, might have been seemed about as realistic or reasonable as the idea of opening a restaurant on Mars (which is on my mind because a good customer sent me a joke about one: ‘The menu’s great but it’s got no atmosphere!” Ha!).

As a history major and someone who studies culture and loves great food and cooking, it’s fascinating to step back and reflect on how and when all of these various artisan foods have gained more acceptance over the years. (Micki Maynard is writing a book about us for release early in 2022, so it’ll be interesting to get someone else’s take on all this.) One food that’s still, to my view, not as fully embraced as some of the others we offer is artisan single-origin honey. Great honey is hardly new news. It’s been around since time immemorial. Unfortunately, what most Americans experience, nearly forty years after we opened, is still the same industrially-processed, sweet but bland commercial honey that was so commonplace back in the early 80s. While a bit of progress has been made, it pales in comparison to the much wider recognition of extra virgin olive oil, or artisan bread and cheese. And yet, the difference between commercial and craft honey is huge. You can pick your culinary comparison. I’ll say here it’s as if most of us were still eating American singles (which I happily grew up eating) on cheese boards! Eating great artisan honey, by contrast, is like fine wine or an incredible piece of Parmigiano Reggiano (which, by the way, is wonderful with a bit of chestnut honey drizzled over top). Artisan honey has been, without question, one of the most magical additions to the richness of my culinary life.

There’s a whole chapter I did in Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating about artisan, single-origin honey. In brief, let’s just say that everything you’ve come to love about great wine, olive oil, cheese, beer, pasta, or vinegar is equally true for the world’s many terrific honeys. The blossoms that the bees are landing on are the key to the flavor. Old school, single-source honeys like this reflect the uniqueness of their terroir, in the same way that olive or grape varietals do. You can go anywhere from the thick butterscotch-like Hawaiian Lehua honey to the light and clear, cotton-candy-ish flavors of Meadowfoam from the Pacific Northwest, to the delicate and hard-to-get complex Tupelo Honey from north Florida and south Georgia.

How do you use these great honeys? I still maintain that one of the best desserts in the world is a spoonful of terrific artisan honey. I often eat a bit before I go for a run to put a good taste in my mouth. A spoonful of amazing honey is a great way to reground if you’re having a hard day—take a minute to savor its complex culinary beauty and I’m betting you’ll be in a better mood in under sixty seconds. It’s great in coffee or tea, added to salad dressings, for baking, or just about anything else. Each honey has its own flavor and there’s as much variety in single source honey as there is in olive oil or wine. One of the companies that has done a ton of work to help bring great honey to the American culinary world is the Zeldner family and their lovely little firm, Z Specialty Food. Under the label Moon Shine Trading, they started working with artisan honey around the same time we opened the Deli in the early 80s. Four decades later they’re still at the forefront. At any given point, we probably have 20 different varietal honeys at the Deli, and at least a third of them are single origin American honeys from the Zeldners.

One of my favorite ways to appreciate great honey has been to put it on toast along with the awesome nut butter we get from Georgia Grinders. I wrote “hazelnut” in the headline because alliteration always appeals to me, but the toast is just as great with their amazing almond butter as well. Or if you prefer, their pecan butter. The toast is super simple—you can make it under six minutes. Toast a slice of Bakehouse bread of your choosing. Pour on a bit of extra virgin olive oil. Spread on the nut butter while the toast is hot. (Because it has no stabilizers, if you’re just opening the jar you’ll need to allow a minute or two to mix the oil back in). Drizzle on a good bit of the honey. I took Tupelo, but really any of them will work well. Sprinkle on a bit of the Portuguese sea salt and a grind of great black pepper. Layer on some whole nuts—we have terrific hazelnuts from the Piemonte region of Italy, almonds from Spain and Sicily, and pecans from Georgia.

Next week I’ll be part of a retail panel discussion and education program about artisan honey. 

Join me for the artisan honey panel discussion

Other Things on My Mind

I had a very nice conversation about humility with Dr. Gloria Burgess for her podcast series.

There’s a great new magazine out called, For the Culture. It’s a “biannual printed food magazine that celebrates Black women and femmes in food and wine.”

I’ve been listening to Sunny War’s music for the last few years now and she has a great new album out!

Brandon de la Cruz has some lovely music out. Check it out!

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
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