Ann Arbor's Food Revolution
Published: April 2009
By Francine Maroukian
Where can you go to get a taste of the best regional dishes in the country--all under one roof?Zingerman's Roadhouse, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the unlikely center of a quiet food revolution.
Directions aren’t hard to come by. Most anyone in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will steer you to the corner of Jackson and West Stadium with the assurance that you can’t miss it—Zingerman’s Roadhouse restaurant, where the rooftop vintage neon sign brightly spells out Really Good American Food and the menu reads like a national registry: Mississippi catfish, New Mexico green chiles, Apalachicola oysters, Minnesota wild rice. It’s a big country. Someone’s got to eat it.
As words like organic, sustainable, and local fizzle out into nothing more than menu-speak, it’s good to remember that these concepts are rooted in action. They don’t happen unless you do something, and the generally acknowledged best place to see these ideals at work is Zingerman’s, one of the most important food destinations in the country.
Like a good buddy movie, it all started with two friends on a mission. The year was 1982 and University of Michigan grads Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig cofounded Zingerman’s Delicatessen and started serving full-flavored, traditionally made food. From the very beginning, they would use authentic ingredients in their sandwiches—chopped chicken liver following a family recipe, but with free-range chicken; farm, rather than factory, cheese; smokehouse bacon instead of the mass-market variety. Long before the vogue for artisanal products, Weinzweig traveled the country and unearthed such local specialties. After several years, the popular Zingerman’s catalogue and mail-order business was born, championing struggling producers and providing a crucial new link between them and a growing number of enthusiasts.
A visit to the Roadhouse reveals just how profoundly that early commitment to traditional American food has taken root. Many of the small-producer “discoveries” are now superstars, but their bond to Zingerman’s remains strong. The newsletter-style menu, embellished with the same colorful cartoon design used throughout the company, is packed with references to artisanal ingredients integral to the nation’s most iconic dishes. Burgers are made with Niman Ranch beef from pasture-raised heritage-breed stock; macaroni and cheese is thick with raw-milk Vermont-cheddar sauce; corn dogs are all-beef wieners dipped in a batter of Anson Mills stone-milled cornmeal; the doughnut sundae—that’s right, the doughnut sundae—is composed of Zingerman’s own vanilla gelato topped with roasted Virginia runner peanuts sitting in a freshly fried buttermilk-and-molasses doughnut made according to a centuries-old recipe. Weinzweig is cautious about conferring icon status on food: “You won’t find a gold-plated painting of apple pie hanging on the walls of the Hermitage,” he says. The Roadhouse definition is driven by a more personal criterion. “We look for dishes to which people have a deep emotional attachment. Even if we didn’t grow up eating them, we wish we had.”
Authenticity is key at the Roadhouse, and great attention is paid to the intricate history of traditional foods—where a dish comes from, why it got there, how it should taste, what it takes to make it. The result, in the hands of managing partner and chef Alex Young, is a roster of U.S. all-stars, each inspired by the part of the country where the dish originated. Due to the prominent role Germans and Austrians had in settling the Lone Star State, Texas-style chicken-fried steak made the cut; it’s not hard to imagine the dish as the frontier translation of Wiener schnitzel, a staple of Central European cuisine. So did the egg, fried oyster, and bacon dish known as Hangtown Fry, popularized in the late 1800’s by northern California gold prospectors as a mixture of the most expensive ingredients new money could buy. Seasonal fish is planked according to ancient American Indian cooking techniques and infused with the flavor of the appropriate regional wood, like wild West Coast salmon on aromatic alder wood or East Coast shad on more-delicate oak. If the menu is heavy on dishes from the South, it’s because that part of the country has a unique culinary heritage to mine (including the rich traditions of Afro-Caribbean cooking). Sitting down to a plate of chili fries, made with twice-cooked, hand-cut potatoes, beef chuck spiced with Los Chileros ancho (from a small family-owned company in Santa Fe), and grated two-year-old cheddar, is like seeing an original photograph after years of looking at blurry photocopies.
To Young and Weinzweig, “research and development” means one thing: taking a road trip. On the way to catch their flight home following a Southern Foodways Alliance conference in Oxford, Mississippi, they were told they could find outstanding chicken by taking a mere 45-mile detour to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, on Highway 70 in Mason, Tennessee. “At Gus’s they make what any fried-chicken freak knows as Tennessee style,” Young says. “Raw meat goes into seasoned buttermilk, gets tossed in flour, then fried. It’s not fancy, it’s just good— really good.” Young spent weeks experimenting until he was satisfied with his version, using Indiana Amish free-range chicken to give the dish even more flavor. Now it’s a blockbuster Roadhouse favorite. And when the chef built a traditional Southern barbecue pit for slow-cooking whole hogs and brisket over oak wood smoke, legendary pit master Ed Mitchell—known at the Roadhouse as the “mentor in the world of Eastern-style North Carolina barbecue”—drove up from Raleigh to Ann Arbor and gave his approval.
But there’s more to the success of the Zingerman’s business model than obsessive regard for the preservation of authentic regional cooking. The company is passionate about community roots—including its own. Last year, the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (now consisting of seven interdependent enterprises, including the Zingerman’s Bakehouse, Creamery, and Coffee Company) chalked up about $35 million in sales and published its “2020 vision,” outlining plans for growth in the next decade. As part of that design, the company keeps open books and involves employees in the story behind the profits—something virtually no other food company has attempted. Zingerman’s extends the principle of sharing financial growth to its surrounding community. In 1988 the original partners founded Food Gatherers, not just Michigan’s first food-rescue program but the first organization of its kind to be founded by a for-profit business, and today Zingerman’s contributes at least 10 percent of the previous year’s net operating profit to philanthropy. Call it culinary socialism or utopian capitalism, Zingerman’s is a Midwestern food mecca drawing visitors from around the globe, including curious industry types who want to carry back some of its magic to their own businesses.
In the three roadhouse dining rooms, the walls are dotted with homemade collages of maps, photographs, and handwritten notes to tell the tale behind some of the restaurant’s menu items, like Colonel Bill Newsom’s Kentucky Country Ham, still cured with a method passed down in a family will from 1792. There’s a large, hand-drawn U.S. map pinpointing the sources of the ingredients. The young, engaging staff are uniformly well-educated about the menu, yet polite enough to resist overloading diners with information. They may not bother to share that the creamed corn is made with John Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn, barely known outside of Pennsylvania Dutch Country; that the blue cheese on the salad comes from the milk of a closed herd in Point Reyes, on Tomales Bay in northern California; or that the egg noodles in your soup are made with sheeted and slow-dried pasta from Al Dente, in Whitmore Lake, Michigan.
As a company, Zingerman’s struggles to balance the reality of nonlocal ingredients with strongly held values about sustainable agriculture and economies. In season, the Roadhouse kitchen sources two-thirds of its produce from the Ann Arbor area, with Young’s own farm contributing about 15 percent. What started out as a 100-square-foot hobby garden for the chef has grown to a two-acre plot over the past two years, and he plans to cultivate 150 additional acres that will be able to provide about half the Roadhouse produce.
“We live in Michigan, so local doesn’t only mean eliminating the obvious—like raspberries air-shipped in from Chile. We also couldn’t be consuming coffee, tea, chocolate, or spices, all of which come from what might as well be the moon in terms of the geographic proximity of our sources to Ann Arbor,” says Weinzweig. “The peppercorns we use come from India, not Indiana.”
Weinzweig has always maintained a constant dialogue with his far-flung suppliers, no matter where they live, in what he calls a “modern face-to-face relationship.” If a customer has a question about a cheese he is buying, there’s a chance Weinzweig knows what the cows on the farm are eating that day. “I’ve long thought that one of the most important things we do is build connections among people who share those same values,” he says. “We connect people in Ann Arbor with food made by caring craftspeople around the world. For us, buying local means having a relationship with the people who make the food, a relationship with the people we work with here in town, and a relationship with the end user. In that sense, we’ve had twenty-six years of buying local—all over the world.”
There are direct daily flights to the Detroit Metro airport, a 45-minute drive from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Where to Stay
An intimate boutique hotel located in the heart of the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. 300 S. Thayer St.; 734/769-3010; belltowerhotel.com; doubles from $167.
A newly renovated 208-room property just blocks from Zingerman’s Delicatessen. 615 E. Huron St.; 800/666-8693; campusinn.com; doubles from $202.
Where to Eat
442 Detroit St.; 734/663-3354; lunch for two $28.
2501 Jackson Ave.; 734/663-3663; dinner for two $65.
To order from the Zingerman’s mail-order catalogue, go to zingermans.com.