A Note on Beautiful Food
My mom has always taught me to see the beauty in everything. And I mean everything. As a recreational painter and photographer, she is always looking to discover the special qualities in a place, a person, a work of art, or even a rusty piece of trash lying in the middle of the street. She has a knack for looking at the seemingly ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary. So, as the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it would make sense that this mentality would carry over to my work at Zingerman’s. I’ll explain.
A few weeks back, on a leisurely day off work, I strolled into Zingerman’s Deli to do a bit of grocery shopping. As I approached the extensive wall of olive oils, I gravitated towards a bottle I had been eyeing for weeks. Tenuta di Valgiano, a beautifully balanced Tuscan olive oil with an equally buttery and peppery flavor. Given its heftier price point, I had a difficult time justifying the purchase; I am a mere eight months past my college graduation so you can do the math. And then a familiar line came into my head, my best friend echoing, “you deserve it”—our go-to line whenever one of us is on the fence about a purchase. With Emma’s comforting words and my own intrigue to drive me, I caved in and bought it.
Weeks later, as I continue to put this oil to good use in my kitchen, I keep wondering what drew me to this particular bottle. We carry upwards of fifty oils at the Deli, all of them distinct and delicious in their own way, and this was the one that popped out at me. Why? Obviously, the taste left a big impression and the tradition surrounding its production definitely added to the appeal. But, when I think back to my first sighting of this oil, what stuck out the most was the physical bottle itself. Shaped like a traditional wine bottle with an almost matte black finish, this bottle is simply adorned with bold white lettering stating the name and origin of the oil. That’s it. I know it sounds way too simple to leave any sort of impression, but that’s what I loved about it. The minimalism of the design really accentuated the beauty and boldness of the oil.
That was a long rant about one bottle of olive oil, but this whole experience got me thinking about all of the interesting foodstuffs we sell at the Deli. While full flavor is first priority when it comes to product selection, we also look for traditionally made items with great stories attached to them. What my olive oil anecdote made me realize is that quite often these stories manifest themselves in the packaging and presentation of the product themselves.
Take our famous Farm Bread from Zingerman’s Bakehouse. Inspired by the traditional loaves found at French dinner tables, this white/wheat blend is not only a bestseller at the Deli, but also consistently recognized for its beauty. The rough arrangement of cuts on top of the loaf isn’t just a random design, but is actually meant to depict a stalk of wheat—a visual expression of what lies beneath the crust.
A very similar story can be told for Alziari olive oil, one of our most popular French oils sourced from the city of Nice. With a velvety mouth feel and light, buttery flavor, this oil is intended to capture not only the taste of Nice but the culture as well. This oil comes packaged in a square metal tin, painted a striking cerulean color and adorned with delicate designs. Taken all together, the presentation of the tin is meant to depict an old textile from southern France, further emphasizing the oil’s roots in its region.
June Taylor fruit preserves are another standout product due to taste and appearance. As the reigning queen of specialty spreads, June Taylor of Berkeley, California has set the gold standard for small batch jams made with the freshest, seasonal produce available. Complimenting this old-fashioned, tried-and-true approach to jam making are her handmade labels, produced by a local artist. Using an original letterpress machine, each label is marked around the border with an asparagus green and beige geometric design, the origins of which I learned were inspired by the Book of Kells, an Irish book of Gospel containing numerous intricate illustrations. Within this border, the artist either prints or has June write the names of each spread, adding that extra personalized touch to a truly handmade product.
Perhaps the biggest standouts on the retail floor in terms of unique packaging are the Les Mouettes D’Arvor collection of vintage sardines. This line of sardines are aged anywhere from 1-4 years and each year’s vintage receives a distinct illustration on its tin. Les Mouettes commissions a different artist each year to paint the specific tin’s picture, always depicting scenes of fishermen and fishing culture. Bet you never thought you could score an authentic work of art with your sardine purchase, did you?
When shopping at Zingerman’s, taste is the ultimate test. But, unlike what our parents have lectured us about for so long, it’s also okay to judge a book by its cover and appreciate a product for all that it’s worth. More often than not, there’s a lot to be learned from those tiny labels on a jar of a jam, the rind of an aged cheese, or even the crust on a loaf of bread. As my mom continues to show me, there really is beauty to be found everywhere. You just have to be willing to look.