They had me at “parmesan pepper bread.” There are plenty of cookbooks that delight the eyes with beautiful photography, but the new self-titled cookbook from Zingerman’s Bakehouse (and the first proper cookbook from the lauded Zingerman’s 10 businesses) in Ann Arbor, Mich., is not a coffee table book.
Written by bakery co-owners Amy Emberling and Frank Carollo, the book does have some mouthwatering images, but its real appeal lies in the no-nonsense recipes that seem like they’re just an oven-preheat away from appearing warm and fresh in your kitchen.
First things first: There is not nor has there ever been a “Zingerman” at Zingerman’s. When Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig opened the deli in 1982, they felt that neither of their last names was well suited for a Michigan deli (the former is the name of a town in Michigan and the second isn’t easy to pronounce.) So they settled on Zingerman’s, a zippy Jewish name that would be easy to find at the end of the phone book.
Over the decades, the Zingerman’s “community of businesses” has expanded, starting with the Bakehouse, which opened in 1992. Though Saginaw and Weinzweig are involved with every Zingerman’s business, each one operates as a separate entity. These days, Ann Arbor seems to be known for three things: the University of Michigan; football (thanks in part to the university’s stadium, which is the largest in the United States); and Zingerman’s. Though the university’s history dates nearly back to the city’s founding in 1824, three and a half decades of Zingerman’s has had a huge impact on the town. A visit to Ann Arbor just wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Zingerman’s.
Marcie Greenfield, who runs a food-tour company called Savor Ann Arbor, says that when she first moved to the city in 1975, “there was an undercurrent of foodieness,” but not many restaurants. As Zingerman’s began crafting corned beef sandwiches at the deli, the restaurant scene exploded. “Zingerman’s has turned [Ann Arbor] into a foodie mecca for the world,” Greenfield says.
Ann Arbor now has more eateries per capita than any city in the U.S. The deli opened in a neighborhood called Kerrytown, which had a seedy reputation at the time. “You didn’t go there and you didn’t go there at night,” Greenfield says of the area in the 1970s. “Zingerman’s made people go to Kerrytown and hang out there.” Today this historic district is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.
In the movie The Five Year Engagement, set largely in Ann Arbor, one of the main characters gets a job first at the deli and later at the bakehouse. When a University of Michigan researcher was studying how gut bacteria responds to different types of yeasts, one of the foods he used was Zingerman’s Italian bread. The owners of the Zingerman’s brand were commencement speakers at U of M in 2015. The local newspaper, Ann Arbor News, covers even the smallest Zingerman-related updates, as though the stores themselves — not just the owners — are celebrities. In a city crazy about football, this kind of hometown pride makes sense — rooting for Zingerman’s is a lot like cheering for the home team.
Just because Zingerman’s makes approachable food doesn’t mean they aren’t almost obsessively committed to their ingredients. As Greenfield says, “They didn’t like the bread they were getting, so they opened their own bakery.”
A novice baker can attempt most of the recipes in the cookbook. Even the more complicated multi-day recipes, like creating a sourdough starter, are written in a way that doesn’t make them feel like such an undertaking. Carollo, whom calling a “jokester” is an understatement, says that they intended this to be a book that doesn’t just sit on the shelf, but actually makes it into the kitchen. “We didn’t make it pretty because we didn’t want anyone to be tempted,” he deadpanned. “We’ll only sell it to people willing to bake the recipes.”
And there’s an eclectic mix of those to choose from — from rye sour and Cornish beef pasties to chocolate-covered glazed doughnuts and Hungarian walnut cream cake — which reflects the many items the bakery has sold over the years.
“One of the challenges for bakeries like ours is that a small group of customers can really fall in love with an item and can be very vocal,” Emberling says, adding that as a result, it’s hard to get rid of items once they’re on the menu. “You have to be careful when you launch a new item, because you might never let it go.”
Sometimes that means keeping something on the menu that the staff thinks is incredible, even though it’s not a big seller. In a section of the book called “Flops and Maybe Even Failures,” Carollo writes of a bread and roll topping made from a mixture of fennel, sesame and poppy seeds. “We were certain it was going to be a signature item,” he says. This was two decades ago — and it still hasn’t taken off yet. But they still bake a dozen or so loaves with the topping every day for themselves and a few customers.
While Zingerman’s has had chances to replicate the deli and other stores throughout the nation, Emberling says they decided in the early 90s that the brand would remain solely in Ann Arbor. And that’s likely a large part of the appeal. When you think of famous delis like Katz’s in New York City or Shapiro’s Deli, which has been operating in Indianapolis since 1905, they aren’t the first of a chain — there’s just one. And if you want to eat there, you might have to be willing to travel.
Ultimately, Zingerman’s isn’t just beloved in Ann Arbor because of the food, but because it’s another thing of which locals can be proud. Even Oprah has approved of Zingerman’s, thanks to an episode of her show in which she ate the deli’s No. 97 sandwich, a soft bun topped with hand-pulled beef in barbecue sauce.
When out-of-towners come to visit, they don’t have to go to a football game to try one of Ann Arbor’s best hometown traditions. They just have to head to the bakehouse or deli and grab a loaf or a sandwich. As Greenfield says, “There’s a million places like Zingerman’s in New York, but there’s only one place like it here.”
Tove K. Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Ore.