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Ann Arbor's Food Revolution

Marcus Nilsson

Photo: Marcus Nilsson

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.

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