It’s a crisp spring morning in Dexter, a rural town on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan, but here in the front parlour of Cornman Farms’ vintage farmhouse, things are getting a little heated. It’s a round table discussion about the local food scene and the f bombs have started flying.
I’m sitting with group of people who have a passionate interest in Ann Arbor’s culinary culture and we’ve started talking about big ag.
John Britton is head distiller at Ann Arbor Distillery, a tightly focused, field-to-glass operation that produces handcrafted spirits using only Michigan-grown grain and botanicals. Jason McNeely manages Ollie Food + Spirits, a restaurant in the nearby town of Ypsilanti with a hyperlocal, seasonally driven menu that draws from the same agricultural base. David Klingenberger is chief fermenting officer and co-owner of The Brinery, a farmhouse operation that handcrafts small-batch, naturally fermented pickles from locally grown vegetbles. Kathy Sample is the founder of Argus Farm Stop, a retail outlet in downtown Ann Arbor where farmers can sell their produce seven days a week, year round.
The fellow cursing is Keiron Hales, chef/owner of Cornman Farms and our host this morning. He is frustrated because although he cooks from scratch for his family, his 6-year-old son wants to eat sugary cake muffins and other nutritionally poor foods that are served with school lunches. “I told him he can have candy if he learns to make it himself,” says Hale, whose blog includes a recipe for home-made jelly beans, among other wholesome treats.
Sample is mad because regulations made by and for large-scale agricultural operations are making it impossible for small-scale farmers to stay in business. They can’t afford to adhere to building codes that are designed for factory production sites or the stringent health and safety regulations that inhibit farm gate sales. She founded Argos Farm Stop in an effort to connect farmers and their customers and to make good food accessible to the community.
“Pickle Wizard” Klingenberger is a soft-spoken force at the Cornman Farms round table but comes to life when I meet him later at The Brinery, surrounded by bubbling barrels filled with vegetables in various stages of transformation. The former craft brewer and self-described hippy farmer now processes 200,000 pounds of vegetables a year that are grown on local, family-owned farms. To Klingenberger, pickles are not just a highly nutritious food, they are a way of creating a bridge between grower and eater, a vital relationship that is helping to redefine the food culture of the region.
Ann Arbor is a mid-sized city, with a compact historic downtown energized by the presence of the University of Michigan campus and a world renowned medical centre. It has tree-lined streets, a vibrant arts, music and cultural scene, plus a pretty hinterland of wooded hills and rolling farmland, intersected by the Huron River. And notably, Ann Arbor has an energetic culinary community, with a disproportionately large number of independent restaurants and artisan food producers for a city its size.
Ann Arbor’s activist-driven culinary culture owes much to the efforts of two college kids who went to school here in the 1970s. Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw opened the New York-style Zingerman’s Delicatessen in 1982, largely because their adopted Midwestern town was devoid of a decent bagel.
That storefront started a movement that now encompasses twelve local food businesses, plus a training institute and nationwide mail-order business. Zingerman’s Bakehouse began as an offshoot of the deli, providing bagels, and bread for their signature Reuben sandwich. Next came the Zingerman’s Creamery, to keep up with demand for truly fresh cream cheese. Coffee and candy followed, as did a Roadhouse and other restaurants, with each new enterprise co-founded by Zingerman’s but independently run by a passionate individual.
The Zingermans model of expansion and inculcating new businesses, if not unique, is certainly interesting. Every employee who joins the Zingerman’s workforce is offered a “pathway to partnership” that includes training opportunities and assistance in all aspects of running a business. Every new enterprise that comes under the corporate umbrella starts, not with a desire to expand the Zingerman’s portfolio, but with an individual who has the energy and burning desire to make something exceptionally well.
This unusual business model comes into focus, albeit in a roundabout way — when we learn that Ari Weinzweig is a proponent of anarchism, particularly the type espoused by the late nineteenth century feminist radical Emma Goldman, whom he studied at the University of Michigan in the 1970s.
Anarchism, by strict definition, calls for the abolition of any form of government. But Goldman was not opposed to the concept of a central organizing body per se – she maintained that an organization should not be an hierarchical institution, but a cooperative structure whose sole purpose is to enhance the lives of the people who are part of it.
“This has been a part of our philosophy at Zingerman’s since we opened in 1982 – creating a business committed to helping everyone it touches!” writes Weinzweig, who has penned a number of books on business management. The Zingerman’s community of businesses is intended not as a pyramidal structure that funnels benefit towards the top but — in the spirit of Goldman — a horizontal network of mutually profitable relationships.
The single minded attention to quality — of ingredients and their preparation — is a thread that is now deeply woven into the fabric of the Ann Arbor culinary scene. The farmhouse breakfast that Kieron Hales laid out for us after the round table was a perfect example of how good unfussy food, prepared with fine ingredients and great attention to detail, can be. Slow scrambled eggs, Yorkshire puddings, smoky bacon, clotted cream, fresh raspberries, sausages made the night before, tomatoes slowly roasted over three days, home-made peach jam, and a raised pastry pie filled with mashed potatoes were among the old-fashioned treats lined up on a long counter in his gleaming kitchen. After years of top-level cheffing (he’s cooked for presidents and royalty), Hales is living his dream. Partnership with Zingerman’s enabled him to buy and renovate the historic Cornman farmhouse and build a catering and event business around produce grown on the farm and sourced from like-minded local purveyors.
The newest addition to the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses is Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant that is taking the North American experience of that cuisine to the next level. Self-taught chef Ji Hye Kim missed her Korean family’s cooking after moving to New York and started studying her grandmother’s recipes. That interest developed into a deep fascination with Korean culinary history and ultimately, after securing a counter job at Zingerman’s Deli, to the opening of her restaurant. This is no ordinary food – yes there is bibimbap and Korean fried chicken, but also miso-buttered asparagus with an oozy poached egg, enoki mushroom japchae with chewy potato noodles, mushroom-stuffed bao, and the spicy rice flour batons called tteokbokki, each dish extraordinarily well crafted and exploding with colour and flavour.
Kim adheres to the Zingerman’s philosophy that everyone who is part of a business should earn a living wage. No-one employed at Miss Kim needs to work tables for tips or take a second job in order to survive. Kim is proud of the fact that her success is shared with the people who helped her achieve it.
The spirit of cooperation and partnership that Weinzweig and Saginaw inculcated in their businesses pervades the Ann Arbor food scene. The city is littered with Zingerman’s alumni and others who embody the same entrepreneurial verve and commitment to quality that earned Zingerman’s Deli national acclaim and brought Ann Arbor to the attention of the culinary cognoscenti. Craft breweries, craft cocktail bars (many with live music), artisan food producers, and restaurants helmed by talented, creative chefs abound. The bar has been set high in this food-savvy city, and in order to survive, restaurants have to be good.
And of course no visit to Ann Arbor would be complete without a trip to the place where it all began. Join the line, place your order for the Reuben, find a seat and in a very short time you’ll be enjoying a sarnie (enlivened by David Klingenberger’s sauerkraut) that not only tickled the palate of Barrack Obama and deserves a place in the sandwich hall of fame, but also encapsulates the unique personality of a very tasty Midwestern town.
Click here for a list of great places to eat and drink in Ann Arbor.