ANN ARBOR, Mich. — President Barack Obama flew here in May to deliver the University of Michigan commencement address. He didn't stick around. But before Air Force One departed, the White House put in a to-go order from Zingerman's Delicatessen for delivery to the airport. Even the leader of the free world doesn't go to Ann Arbor and miss Zingerman's.
Zingerman's is a magical word for foodies. Its reputation as one of the most famous and beloved delis in the United States is improbable, tucked away as it is in a charming university town that's not a destination city unless you're a football fan or parent of a university student.
I was in the latter category for three years so I have enjoyed the Zingerman's experience firsthand. I probably never would have otherwise, only using Zingerman's, as thousands of others do, as a mail-order source for fabulous baked goods, cheese and unusual pantry ingredients. (I routinely order pomegranate molasses, for example, Banyuls vinegar and John Cope dried corn, which is great creamed.)
Major food writers have sung its praises for years, and Oprah declared its sandwiches "an 11 out of 5." But let's face it: For most people, a trip to Ann Arbor just for Zingerman's is unrealistic.
If you are in southeastern Michigan, do plan a detour. The food's that good. Having eaten my share of corned beef on rye in many deli-famous cities, I believe Zingerman's is the best. Gilding that classic lily with the addition of sauerkraut, cheese and Russian dressing should be heretical, but the Zingerman's Reuben takes you to an even farther corned beef universe.
And the cream cheese!
Housemade, light and fluffy as whipped cream, it's about as distant from the thick, grocery-store bricks as I, at this moment, am from Zingerman's. Paired with smoked salmon or — even better — smoked trout, it enters the realm of an Astaire-Rogers pas de deux.
Some people grouse about the prices, which are pretty stiff. But they reflect the quality of the ingredients, sourced as lovingly as those at a four-star restaurant.
My recent visit to Zingerman's was both a gut-busting blast and sentimental journey since it likely will be my last one: My son graduated and is heading for a job out of the state.
To celebrate and say goodbye, we decided to have a Zingerman's blowout. He lives with four roommates on the first floor of an old Victorian-style house whose defining interior feature is the presence of two refrigerators in the kitchen. My goal was to help fill them.
Zingerman's is an easy walk away in the historic district of the town. The brick building is quirky and small. There's a line that usually snakes out the door (for shopping — there's no seating in the deli), but you're placated with free samples of their revered sour cream coffee cake. Chaos ensues just over the threshhold, where you are funneled into a crush of people bracketed by the bread and cheese counters.
You should definitely make your way, politely thrashing latitudinally through the scrum, to both.
The cheese choices, in the hundreds, overwhelm. I always shut down and become deeply indecisive.
Which brings me to another important element in the Zingerman's experience. No matter the crowd, a staff member always seems close at hand to help. They're friendly, knowledgeable and give the impression that you're the only customer in the joint and can take all the time in the world.
Also, they practically throw free samples at you. Ask a casual question about mostarda and someone's opening a jar for you to taste.
Michael, a man who looks far too young to possess vast cheese wisdom, materializes before us. We desire a selection that is rare and unusual but not too stinky. He starts cutting slices and passing them over, explaining his rationale.
I want to be discerning and not just rubber-stamp Michael's choices but, honestly, I love every one of them: a variety of sheep, cow and goats' milk cheeses from France — "I've been in a French frame of mind lately," he says — that generate strangled sounds of joy from my son's full mouth.
A 180-degree turn to the wall of breads yields the sad news that Zingerman's transcendent peppered bacon loaf isn't being offered that day. (It's always available by mail order, FYI.) We are offered alternatives. With samples, of course.
"We could probably just fill up for free," I say.
Dead ahead is the beating heart of Zingerman's, its sandwich station, which lists about 100 combinations and sides to go with them.
You typically don't make it up to the counter because, as you stand in line, more staff fan out to take orders. The roommates have given us a list of their preferences. I ask about the coleslaw and potato salad options. Samples ensue. The merits of the "old" and "new" pickle, recently introduced, are discussed and accompanied by, yes, samples.
Beyond, I troll the narrow aisle packed on both sides with a fascinating variety of condiments and arcane dry goods along with more olive oils than I knew existed. More samples.
You will probably feel, as I do when I check out, weighted down by your distended belly and a clutch of biodegradable shopping bags.
If so, call a cab.
But while you wait, force yourself onward across a terrace to another old building, Zingerman's Next Door, that offers coffee and sweets as well as a place to sit if you care to eat on site. You may think you don't want more samples. Resistance is futile; Zingerman's insists. And you really do need some of those acclaimed brownies for the guys back at the house.
Very little of our haul will make it to those two refrigerators. We unload sandwiches, salads, cheeses, breads, condiments and desserts on a table. Word of free food spreads, so we have drop-ins.
"Have a sample," I say to everyone.
Lennie Bennett is the Times' art critic. She can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.