New Yorkers may consider their town the capital of Jewish deli fare, but Saveur magazine recently singled out Michigan’s Zingerman’s — arguably the foodie mecca of the Midwest — for producing the best Jewish rye bread in America. Founded almost 30 years ago, the Ann Arbor deli (the name was invented with the aim of sounding “fun and Jewish”) has steadily grown from a small and bustling sandwich shop to a “community of businesses” that includes a “bakehouse,” sit-down restaurant, creamery, baking classes, mail-order catalog, management-training/consulting services — even a farm.
One thing Zingerman’s is definitely not, and never has been, however, is kosher. Next week it will host its second annual “Camp Bacon,” a four-day festival following the success of co-founder/CEO Ari Weinzweig’s 240-page “Guide to Better Bacon,” which addresses everything from the quintessentially treif item’s history to its many varieties. His books also include a series-in-progress of business leadership manuals, the first one called “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business.”
Although he’d much prefer to talk about food and the inspiration he derives from 19th-and 20th-century anarchist writers like Emma Goldman, Weinzweig, 54, agreed to share some details about his childhood (Conservative day school, Camp Ramah, Shabbat and kashrut-observant home) in Skokie, Ill., and whether or not Zingerman’s is a “Jewish” deli.
Q: You had a very Jewish-y upbringing.
A: My stepfather fought in the Palmach, and my mother [who died three years ago, while on a trip to Israel] went to a kibbutz in 1949. Their whole life revolved around Judaism and Israel. They were very generous, and worked on a lot of Jewish causes. They were instrumental in starting the Schechter school — I was in the first graduating class, my stepfather was on the board and my mother taught there many years as a substitute teacher.
Is Judaism an important part of your life?
It was my mother’s thing. I’m more interested in Jewish history and culture.
How did your mom feel about Zingerman’s?
She didn’t feel that good about it for a long time. Later she made peace with it. At first she didn’t feel good about it because I was wasting my education [a BA in history from the University of Michigan]: I didn’t go to law school; I didn’t go to medical school. Then she didn’t feel that great about it because it’s not kosher.
Did she ever eat at Zingerman’s?
She was here a few times. The No. 36 sandwich [“Lila and Izzie’s Skokie Skidoo,” a vegetarian Reuben] is named for her and my stepfather. They wouldn’t eat meat here. My sister won’t eat here at all; she’s Orthodox. … But she’s very non-dogmatic. She gives the bacon book to colleagues and friends, and ships stuff that she won’t eat to her friends.
Do you think your Jewish background has affected your outlook or had an influence on Zingerman’s?
I’m sure I learned a lot, but I was probably an anarchist by, like, age 11. Has it influenced Zingerman’s? I think some people might tell you that [by being good corporate citizens] we’re living Jewish values, but I haven’t found a lot of cultures in the world that don’t have values around being good to other people.
Zingerman’s is often described as a Jewish deli. Do you think of it that way?
We’re one of the only really clearly identified Jewish businesses here. How many businesses in Ann Arbor have big posters about Rosh HaShanah or Passover, where all the non-Jewish employees know how to make matzah balls and can tell you when the Jewish holidays are? They actually have abbreviations, like, “When’s Rosh this year?” What Jewish person would ever say that? They’ve created their own lingo around it.
There’s a growing trend of establishments, like Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, that are talking about making Jewish deli food more environmentally sustainable and locally sourced. I know Zingerman’s has its own farm now, and obviously you make a lot of your own ingredients, so do you think Zingerman’s falls into that category?
One thing I feel ever more strongly about is not just sustainable agriculture, but sustainable business. The problems are parallel. If I run a business where people are depleted, and the customer is antagonistic to the business, which is antagonistic to the suppliers, it’s not sustainable. … In the old-school model, people are not aware of the big costs [in making a product] not seen in the price: employers who are treated badly and then go home and treat their kids badly. … You can get cheaper products, but the employees don’t get health insurance and no one contributes to the community.
So how did you become obsessed with bacon?
I’m not obsessed with bacon. I’m just very interested in food … Everyone would just go on and on about how much they loved bacon, but no one was talking about its history or what made the different kinds different. … It’s not my favorite food in the world or anything. I mean, I like it but…