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Life Lessons I Learned from Food and Cooking

More thoughts on bringing the spirit of generosity alive

There is nothing I can think of in the early years of my existence back in suburban Chicago that would have led me, or anyone else for that matter, to believe that the story of my life would later be transformed by a deep connection to food and cooking. We ate supper together more often than not, but food was hardly at the center of my family’s story. Granted, my grandmother did come over on Friday nights to cook the weekly “Shabbos” meal (roast chicken, chopped liver, chicken soup), but it was really just a sidebar to a host of other “more important” subjects. Most of the food I grew up with, as many of you know, was the opposite of what we do here at Zingerman’s: products of industrialization and the move from farmer’s markets to the mass market. The Pop-Tarts®, Tang®, Cheetos®, Kraft® Mac & Cheese, Mrs. Paul’s® Fish Sticks, and a host of other items that all require registered trademarks to be used alongside their names, kept me fed and made me happy at the time, but they hardly inspired any big life plans.

Even at the time I started my studies at U of M, I really had no clue what I was going to do when I “grew up.” I was “supposed” to go somewhere like law school, medical school, or maybe get a yet-to-be-determined degree at graduate school. There was no version of my life story circulating back to when I was 17 that had anything at all to do with farmhouse cheddar, First Flush Darjeeling tea, or the fresh milling of organic grain. Where I came from—literally and conversationally—none of these were ever on the table. Happily, things often have a way of working out. As psychologist Carl Rogers once wrote, “Sometimes I am astonished at the changes that have occurred in my life and work.” 

Food writer Rozanne Gold, who is just a few years older than I am, shared:

When I was 19 years old, and a student at Tufts University, I got a phone call from my mother who told me about a fascinating man she’d heard on the radio that day. He was Hungarian (as was my mother), cultured and worldly, who knew much about food and dining, and had an interesting job. “He is a restaurant consultant!” she exclaimed, “Maybe that’s something for you to think about. He has his own company and creates restaurants all over the world. And he loves a good Dobos torte!”

In an exercise of creative imagination, I smile now thinking about what it might have been like had it been my mother calling to share a suggestion like that shortly after I’d started washing dishes at Maude’s. It’s a good fantasy. Committed as she was to my “success,” the most common message I remember hearing was one of concern for how I was wasting my only recently completed U of M education. The story makes me smile now, but she wasn’t doing anything of the sort back when I started working in restaurants. Little did either of us have any inkling that what seemed to be a short stint cooking the line would turn out to be life-altering work I would do for the rest of my life. I hope that what happened to me happens to many others as well. As Paul Goodman, another good Jewish boy—one who actually did go on to be a professor (and also philosopher, playwright, poet, and anarchist)—wrote, “Having a vocation is somewhat of a miracle, like falling in love and it works out.” Much to my own—and my mother’s—surprise, food and cooking have incontrovertibly changed my life.

Back around the time that I was starting to cook in restaurants, Carl Rogers, the founder of the “human potential” movement, wrote a book called A Way of Being. In it, he shared how his work had altered his worldview, helping him over the years to develop “a point of view, a philosophy, an approach to life, a way of being, which fits any situation in which growth … is part of the goal.” This, it’s very clear as I write here in the last week of summer of 2021, is what happened to me with food and cooking. When I took the job washing dishes at Maude’s a few months after graduating with my history degree from U of M, my expectations were more than modest. I really just wanted to find a way to pay my rent, to have, I hoped, a reasonably good time while I was working. Finding my way into a whole new way of being in the world was hardly on my mind.

The gifts that the food world has given me are worlds beyond anything I could have even imagined. I am forever grateful. I can see it now that those gifts are well aligned with what scientist Stephen Harrod Buhner writes:

There are moments then of unique insight, moments when great things catch us up in their grasp and take us trembling to the shores of another land. Suddenly, for no reason … we break through and directly begin to perceive the underpinnings of the world.

In that moment your sensory perceiving becomes your thinking. It is what you do instead of thinking with the linear mind.

You begin to find that there is much more to the world than we have been taught. You begin to notice that a complexity of perceptual feeling arises from touching the wilderness of the world and that the feelings you receive back possess dynamics that are more complex than those that come from focusing solely on the human world or any of its elements. There are reasons for this, among which is that what you are touching now has its own aliveness, its own awareness, its own capacity to communicate.

How did it happen? My experience of it was much more gradual than what Dr. Harrod Buhner has described, but still, slowly and surely, I arrived at much of that awareness and aliveness. Over the years, I’ve learned so much from so many great people. Paul Saginaw, Frank Carollo, and Louie Marr taught me the basics of cooking and running kitchens while I was at Maude’s. The writing of people like Paula Wolfert, Corby Kummer, Jessica Harris, Joyce Goldstein, Edna Lewis, Perla Meyers, John Thorne, Ed Behr, and others all had a big influence on my learning and understanding. Later I would meet folks like Molly Stevens, the Martelli family, Rolando Beramendi, Leah Chase, Daphne Zepos, Randolph Hodgson, and Alzina Toups. Each of them shared not only their cooking skills, but also their good and graceful ways of being in the world. Over the years, I got involved with the American Cheese Society, Oldways, the specialty food world, and Southern Foodways Alliance. Cooking and learning, studying and tasting, figuring out all along how we could get better, more traditional food to Ann Arbor, and then how to get people, most of whom knew little about artisan food back then, to want to buy it. Continually learning to taste, smell, appreciate, and then, through teaching and writing, to share all of what I was learning, became a way of life. All of which, I can see clearly now, gradually turned into the kind of vocation that Paul Goodman referenced.

The American food world has come an enormously long way in the course of the forty years since we opened the Deli. In an essay I haven’t yet published, I wrote about my realization that when Paul and I opened the Deli in March of 1982, we were a small part of a revolution in the American food world. That revolution has changed the way people all over the country think about, cook, and consume their food. At the same time, food and cooking came together to change my life. Just to get a sense of things, I decided to count the ways. There aree so many learnings on the list, that I’ll share more thoughts on the subject next week. To get started though, here are five: 

The little things make a big difference – Over and over again food and cooking have made clear to me that small, seemingly insignificant, things make a huge difference. Too little salt and a dish will be deemed “tasteless.” Slightly too much salt, and it will seem almost inedible. A tiny bit more caramelization on a bread’s crust can take it from good to great in a manner of minutes. Too much rain the week before the olive harvest diminishes the flavor of the finished oil. Cooking pasta two minutes too long can detract drastically from the entire dish. Over time, I started to understand that this same thing was true in all parts of my life. Forty years later, I almost never take the little things for granted. It would be fair to say now that I actually make my living from the little things.

Live every day with awe and wonder – The food world has taught me to appreciate the wonderment inherent in our daily existence. Kate Davies writes:

Wonder is about being in the presence of something truly amazing that transcends the mundane and the everyday. It humbles us, lifts us up, and expands our awareness. Wonder is the positive feeling we get when we perceive something that thrills or delights us to the very core of our being. Small children are often full of wonder. For them, every day reveals astonishing new delights. But by the time they reach adulthood, this way of experiencing the world fades and life becomes dull and routine—a burden to be endured or a series of problems to be solved.

Great food gives me the opportunity to go back to that childlike sense of awe and amazement every minute of every day; I feel incredibly fortunate that I spend most days within fifteen or twenty feet of world class food and drink. When I’m feeling down, stuck, or overly serious, I have only to find a small bit of what we cook, bake, brew, sell, and serve to remind myself that I am in the presence of greatness. Tasting an amazing olive oil, the spicing on the fried chicken at the Roadhouse, or the dark crust of the Country Miche from the Bakehouse, are small pieces of wonder that I get to be part of every day at work. The joy evoked when customers eat the French crullers at the Bakeshop, or the look on the face of a candy lover as she or he bites into a Zzang! Bar for the first time. Same holds true for me when I go home to cook every evening; a bowl of artisan pasta topped with great olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano, and freshly ground Tellicherry pepper can magically turn my day from difficult to delightful. A few wedges of Tammie’s heirloom tomatoes, sprinkled lightly with fleur de sel, make me smile and shake my head every time I try them.

Make history come alive – As you know from what I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m a history major. Working, as we’ve chosen to do, with traditional food has given me a great way to both study history for a living, and then, in turn, to share that history with folks who want to learn it. Most of the world has never heard of them, but when someone eats the sweet potato fries at the Roadhouse, and I tell them the story of how they come from Gullah traditions of the Sea Islands, their interest is piqued.

Honor and understand my connection with the natural world – My friend Shawn Askinosie says that our vocation almost always turns out to be the inverse of our childhood wound. That which hurt us when we were young, can become the kind of vocation that Paul Goodman wrote about. Growing up as I did at the height of the industrial era, in a big city in a family that spent much more time and energy engaged in intellectual debate than they did walking in the woods, I was pretty well cut off from the wonders of nature. Seasons for me meant mostly shifts from sun to snow, baseball to basketball, summer vacation to the start of the new semester at school. As a kid, I had no clue that you only really get strawberries for three weeks in the spring, that fresh milk was once seasonal, or when olive oil was pressed each year. 

At some subconscious level, I suppose, I probably craved that connection. Later, I can see, I successfully traded concrete for cooking, and intellectual debate for culinary insight. Working with food taught me to really taste, touch, smell, and savor. It helped me learn how to listen better to my body, to watch the way birds land on branches, to take in the grace of the bees as they buzz around colorful blossoms. Working with food in this way opened a whole new world for me. As Stephen Harrod Buhner says, “If you pay close attention, you will notice there is a difference. There is a livingness to it, which the pen or cup or desk did not have (or perhaps did not have as much). And that livingness has a particular feeling to it.” If you stick with it, Buhner says, “you begin to encounter the living reality.”

Stay humble – Baruch Spinoza said, “Everything great is just as difficult to realize as it is rare to find.” Working with artisan food is, as it ought to be, incredibly humbling. No matter what we do, problems will happen, flavors will change, imperfections will abound, seasons will still shift. I learned a long time ago that to get dinner for six out to a table successfully requires an amazing amount of things to go as they should, and dozens of people (including me) to do our jobs well. To have the salt right on every dish when it’s cooked to order, to time all six main courses, appetizers, drinks, and desserts—all of which are coming from different stations; for the host to greet with the right energy, the bartender to get the garnish just right in every cocktail, and the food runner to carry the plates. That doesn’t even count the work of the baker, the brewer, the farmer, and the fisherperson. The food world taught me how small a presence each of us are in the world, how the world revolves—but never around us. As Michael Gelb writes, “True humility emerges from a sense of wonder and awe. It’s an appreciation that our time on earth is limited but that there’s something timeless at the core of every being. Embracing humility liberates us from the egotism that drives both perfectionism and self-sabotage, opening us to a deeper experience of self-worth.”

This list is only part of what I have learned over the years. I will share more next week, and, since I plan to continue learning from food and cooking, I’ll share long into the future as well. I hope that in the coming years I can contribute back close to as much as the food world has given me. As Tarthang Tulku says,

We have a responsibility to work, to exercise our talents and abilities, to contribute our energy to life. Our nature is creative, and by expressing it we constantly generate more enthusiasm and creativity, stimulating an ongoing process of enjoyment in the world around us. Working willingly, with our full energy and enthusiasm, is our way of contributing to life.

What I have learned from food and cooking, and from the thousands of great people who make it and work with it over the last forty years, is a more wonderful gift than I could ever have imagined. Michelle Obama once said, “We learned about gratitude and humility—that so many people had a hand in our success.” Whatever I know, I know that I have learned because others were generous enough of spirit to share what they knew with me. And that whatever we have managed to make happen here at Zingerman’s, it is only through the gracious support of so many who were willing to purchase our products, eat our food, sip our coffee, let us host their most important events, read what we write, or learn from what we teach. Thank you all; through your generosity I, still sort of just a line cook in the story I have started in my mind, have learned—and continue to learn—how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life for which I will be forever grateful.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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