Happy Hour at the Dive Bar for Foodies
I am not embarrassed to admit my favorite coffee table book is a paper catalog. The Zingerman’s catalog. Coined by a friend as ‘food porn’, it is page-after-page of the world’s most delicious food finds, from hard to find, family made olive oils, to Zingerman’s own fresh bread, handmade candy bars and a ‘Bacon of the month’ club. Yes Bacon.
I pine for the contents, but it’s not because of beautifully shot photographs of mouth-watering food. Instead it’s because of the quirky illustrations and witty copy that defines Zingerman’s whimsical style. For days, I pour over it until something as alluring as a chocolate sourdough loaf tips me over the edge to place an order.
Imagine my excitement when we went on holiday just a few hours from the original Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor Michigan.
I arrived plenty early, wanting time to explore what I expected to be a massive operation. Instead, I found a corner store, hidden on a quiet cobblestone street. I knew the humble story of the original deli, but surely by now they owned the block? Confused, I wondered how this tiny little shack was the centre of a 25 million dollar food empire.
I opened the door to laughter and yelling, like a really good dive bar at happy hour. But food was the chosen vice, not booze, and instead of bras hanging from the rafters there was bacon. Food, food everywhere. Cheese to the left, bread to the right, bacon, olives, oils, vinegars, fish, cookies and cakes. Hand painted posters (that I wanted to steal) covered any spare real estate flashing menus and specials.
Overwhelmed, I pretended to know what I was looking for, while eavesdropping on a Zinger Elf explaining the value of an olive oil made from just one varietal. Behind me, another Zinger Elf drizzled a dark circle of brown Sardinian honey onto a plate. Then she filled it with Chilean olive oil and insisted everyone within earshot grab a piece of bread and run it through her puddle. Yum.
The knowledge and passion oozing from the staff was almost intimidating, until one of them took me under her wing. One simple question about vinegar fueled a conversation filled with zest and detail as if I was the only person in the store. It was like a private lesson with a veteran sommelier. I tried gelato with her favorite balsamic, then a cup of soda laced with the sweetest apple cider vinegar ever. “It’s very cleansing,” she boasted. The next thing I know she whipped up a delicious dressing with Argo Dulce, their white balsamic, a fancy French olive oil and a dollop of marmalade, all in a plastic cup.
By now it is 10:30am. I notice the sandwich line for the deli is almost out the door, while sampling a 25 year old balsamic with a $250 dollar price tag. I thank Jamie, the vinegar girl, suppressing the urge to hug her. For two more hours I circle this tiny store, filling my basket with treasures.
At midday, I reluctantly join the long line for one of the sandwiches that originally made Zingerman’s famous. I soon wish it were longer and not moving so fast past the cheese section. Luckily, John from ‘cheese’ notices my frustration and offers me a wedge of Stichelton along with Stichelton 101. In short, I learn that it is Stilton that cannot be called Stilton because it is made from raw milk. Aptly named Stichelton after the village where Stilton originated, it holds its own among Stilton’s with its buttery blue cheese deliciousness.
For lunch, I ordered ‘’the ferber experience’, Zingerman’s own pastrami recipe, described as “a sweet and spicy riot of unrestrained flavors, scallion cream cheese and fresh lettuce on pumpernickel bread.” Simply put, I’d wait in a line twice as long for another one. Even the pickle was scrumptious. And I can’t stand pickles.