Watch David Klingenberger bounce around the room, cradling a leaf of cabbage headed for a batch of saurkraut or the traditional Korean side dish kimchi, and you will wonder if anyone else gets this enthusiastic about the humble vegetable or this simple means of preservation.
The owner of one of Ann Arbor’s many and growing artisan food operations, The Brinery, says he loves filling an entrepreneurial niche with an ancient form of food preservation. This day’s fermentation class is being held in a new Washtenaw Food hub, designed to be a center of food learning and development in a pastoral setting right outside of town. And no one doubts Klingenberger’s passion as he stops just long enough to peel a head of cabbage, layer by layer, to showcase the translucent white sheen of naturally-occurring and beneficial bacteria that coats even the inside leaves. He’s soon launching into an excited discussion on what it means to be human, the miracles of bacteria and probiotics, and how so many of the world’s finest foods are fermented — wines and chocolates, coffees, salamis and sour beers.
When he attributes his great mood to a fermentation-induced seratonin boost, the group is lining up in a “we want some of what he’s having” response to taste samples of pickles and the sauerkraut he makes by the 55-gallon drum each week to fill demand for the Reuben sandwiches at famed Zingerman’s deli. (The classic Reubens are said to be a major reason the line stretches out the deli door and around the block each lunch hour.)
But whether your visit is to artisans of cabbage, or of pottery, performance, food or craft cocktails, you’ll find a similar passion for creativity, perfection, history and learning infused in the very air of this university town. That makes the job of Marcie Greenfield easy as she leads her new savor Ann Arbor walking tours that are themed around international flavors, a strolling tailgate, or even art and architecture.
“Every tour of Ann Arbor ends up as a food tour,” she says. “there are 300 and some restaurants now in this tiny town.”
Leave the choosing to Greenfield, and she’ll likely start your day at the Saturday’s farmer’s market in Kerrytown. There, folding tables teem with bright and aromatic displays of Amish-grown butter lettuce, juicy beefsteak tomatoes, bean-to-bar chocolates, fresh olive or garlic cheese breads, perfect poppies and orange-flavored honeys wrapped with a bow. The group’s early lunch will likely be a soft warm tamale made by a favorite vendor from El Salvador whose black bean versions resemble rich chocolate and where the blackboard lists the local source of the spinach and other locally-grown ingredients. Zingerman’s Deli is usually up next. There, she says, she offers samples of more unexpected fare like vegetarian hash, along with the story about a genius pair of young founders who treat employeees like partners, before the group heads downtown to sample more culinary delights. One stop is usually Frita Batidos, a creative and gourmet take on Cuban street foods developed by a former Top Chef with training at Le Cordon Bleu.
A CULINARY REVOLUTION STARTS WITH CORNED BEEF
The arrival of Zingerman’s in the form of a then-tiny deli in the early 1980s changed the city’s food scene in a dramatic way. since, Ann Arbor has steadily blossomed into a food mecca, a place where people Greenfield says, “just come to eat.” The food giant has blossomed, too, channeling employee initiative into a collection of food emporiums great for sampling, learning and lunch.
Classes at the teaching bakery Bake! now draw visitors from around the country, as do insider tours of the creamery, where mozzarella is hand ladled like it was 120 years ago and creamy gelato similarly made fresh. Do not leave without a sample of the maple bacon gelato, perfected in another signature Zingerman’s class, Camp Bacon. You may even learn something over your best-ever fried chicken and decadent macaroni and (real raw cheddar) cheese at Zingerman’s Roadhouse; the waitstaff is trained to know such things as how the San Francisco sourdough originated in the gold rush era or why the Carolina gourd seed corn makes particularly delicious grits.
“I love that you can make history come to life by bringing seven-year-old wild rice into the roadhouse, and you get to teach people about it,” says Ari Weinzweig, who founded Zingerman’s with Paul Saginaw and says he loves the chance to teach customers and staff as much as business students at major universities. “This business all stemmed from my passion to learn really. Food brings learning to life because it’s traditional food. For us, it’s always about the story.”
Across Ann Arbor, the farm to table — sometimes more “foraging to table” — movement is also taken to the level of art. At Grange, which was on the cutting edge of the state’s Farm to Table boom, an early summer plate crafted by chef/owner Brandon Johns just might come out a spring green color, and no wonder, with its combination of a pesto made of freshly-foraged ramp greens with saltwater shrimp, grown in Michigan. Other treats of the woods like morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns will be featured, and dessert might be an unexpected but tasty cucumber and rhubarb compote topped with microgreens.
Food is literally a painting on the plates of an upscale culinary newcomer to town, Vellum. Order a salad, and you’ll find swaths of dressing painted on in colors like sunflower, mauve and pumpkin, highlighting the vegetables in a way one table described as a Monet. The chef’s table is a favorite for the adventure and innovative wine pairings; the restaurant focuses on unfamiliar varietals popular with the well-traveled, adventurous Ann Arbor clientele.
Art in a glass is also found at a growing number of clubs that take mixology to a new level. At dark, cozy The Ravens Club, you’ll find a “Farm to Glass” approach; they grow many of the ingredients in the creative cocktails. And downtown restaurant Vinology is wholly themed around learning and the art of wine and food pairings. Look for subtle touches like the shadow boxes lining the brick and stone walls of cozy booths divided by gauzy curtains. Inside each is a sample of soil from one of the world’s wine regions and a short description of how that soil influences the wine.
Art class, per se, offers a break between meals via a visit to one of several notable downtown galleries, the newly interactive exhibits at the University of Michigan Museum of art or Motawi Tileworks, where you’ll often find a line every Thursday for the free behind-the-scenes tour of the making of the arts and crafts era-influenced tiles. round out a stay with performance art at the ark, which brings top folk musicians to an intimate setting, or the Purple Rose Theatre Company, a live performance venue in nearby Chelsea, created by actor Jeff Daniels.
Explore on your own, or ask Greenfield to create a custom tour — her favorite way of showcasing her city. “I customize every tour for my guests,” she says. “One tour had a mother who didn’t like fish but a daughter who loved fish, but the mother really liked bacon. i try to make them all happy.” And in Ann Arbor, that isn’t hard.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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