Editor’s note: One of my favorite weekly newsletters is Ari’s Top 5, a collection of thoughts on food and business from Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Michigan institution Zingerman’s Delicatessen and the other ventures that make up the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.
Ari knows what he’s talking about. Inc once called Zingerman’s “the coolest small company in America,” Oprah rated the Zingerman’s reuben “an 11 on a scale of 1 to 5” (Barack Obama said it was “killer”), and I describe Ari to friends as the Steve Jobs of American artisan food—a principled entrepreneur with a cult following who oversees a high-intensity culinary collective in Ann Arbor. He’s also been celebrating Middle America in his work since 1982. Given that mail order is the only way most of us can explore the greater Midwest right now, I asked Ari to come up with ten heartland picks, including a few of his own products, available via USPS from the mail-order crew at Zingerman’s.
While some folks on the coasts tend to take the middle of the country for granted—considering us good mostly for college football, cornflakes, and a bunch of big lakes you can see from planes when you pass overhead—anyone who lives here and loves to eat knows that we have a plethora of fantastic, full-flavored regional foods.
Having grown up in Chicago and having spent my adult life in Ann Arbor working with artisan food, I feel confident that I could pretty quickly come up with a hundred items to share with you. But for practical purposes, let’s start with ten.
American Spoon Early Glow Strawberry Preserves
This was one of the first jams we sold when we opened Zingerman’s in 1982, and it’s still a feature on our shelves today: Early Glow strawberries from Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula cooked with cane sugar in open copper kettles by the Rashid family and the rest of the good folks at American Spoon in Petoskey. With incredible aroma and flavor, it still sets the standard for all the other strawberry jams in the world. Learn more about American Spoon Early Glow Strawberry Preserves.
Anything from Askinosie Chocolate
Working out of Springfield, Missouri, Shawn Askinosie was one of the first people in the world to make bean-to-bar chocolates. Every bar the man makes is truly marvelous—exceptional both ethically and for eating! You’ll taste the difference that his holistic approach to work, food, and life make in every single bite. Learn about Anything from Askinosie Chocolate.
Chris Roelli is a fourth-generation Wisconsin cheesemaker whose great-grandfather came over from Switzerland in the early 1900s. Dunbarton is a beautiful brick of orange farmhouse cheddar with blue veining—meaty, earthy, and nutty, with lots of bass notes and a long finish.
The Nueske family has been selling bacon and ham since the early years of the Great Depression. This bacon is gently smoked over smoldering applewood logs (not sawdust), and we’ve cooked it every morning at Zingerman’s since we opened on March 15, 1982.
If you want a traditional taste of the region, wild rice is the place to start. It’s been a Midwestern culinary staple for as long as Native American peoples have been living here. My emphasis is on really wild wild rice—the authentic article that really does grow wild in the lakes and rivers of the region, most prominently today on the land and water of the Ojibwe people in Minnesota. (Beware cultivated “wild rice” from California, which tastes nothing like the real thing.)
This is the classic soft, spicy, spreadable pork sausage of Calabria, made a few blocks west of California Avenue on Chicago’s Near North Side. Tony Fiasche follows the recipe and techniques he learned from his grandparents in Calabria, but he works solely with heritage pork. Add this ’nduja to sandwiches, put it on pizzas, stir it into sauces, or just enjoy it on good bread. It’s awesome and addictive!
An exceptional offering from Usinger’s in Milwaukee, in business since the late 1800s. Fresh pork liver, real onions, no preservatives. This is so good that it will win over folks who think they don’t like liverwurst. For those of us who know we do, it’s an undeniable delicacy.
We’ve made and sold thousands of good foods at Zingerman’s over the last 38 years, but I still get particularly excited about the cream cheese that we make by hand at our Creamery. This is what cream cheese was like 150 years ago—a fresh cheese, made by hand with fresh local milk and active culture, without preservatives or gums, best eaten within days, or at most a few weeks, of when it was made. If all you’ve had is the commercial product (that’s what I grew up on, too), this is a whole ’nother world. As one of our customers said when we first rolled it out, “It tastes like… cheese!”
This project is new for Zingerman’s, but a return to Michigan tradition. In 1890, a decade or so after the Usingers started making liverwurst, Michigan had 700 flour mills. By 1958, that number had dropped to twenty-eight. Today, we have less than ten. Two years ago, we started milling our own grain at Zingerman’s Bakehouse. It’s made an enormous difference in every loaf of bread. It’s also enabled us to offer this—freshly milled wheat (grown at Ferris Organic Farm in Eaton Rapids, Michigan) that you can use to make a Cream of Wheat-style porridge for breakfast or a pot of savory farina (the wheat equivalent of polenta) to go with dinner. (Cream of Wheat, by the way, has a Midwestern pedigree: It debuted as a North Dakota product at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.)
This is our tribute to candy shop tradition, made fresh right here in the Midwest. Homemade peanut butter and honey nougat, butter-toasted Virginia runner peanuts, dark chocolate, and a tiny touch of sea salt yields a handmade bar that feels familiar, but with a flavor that changes people’s beliefs about what candy can taste like.