Deli, Greyline

Dinner With Abra, Celebrating Her Debut Cookbook, Ruffage

“You know what you like. Taste it. If you like it, that’s enough.” – Abra Berens

On June 14, Zingerman’s alum Abra Berens will host a homecoming dinner in celebration of her debut cookbook Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables at Zingerman’s Greyline. Ruffage has been recognized by the New York Times as one of the 12 best cookbooks of Spring 2019.

In her book’s forward, Francis Lam calls her a dirt-nailed philosopher and a cold-beer storyteller. To us, she’s a friend. She’s someone who wants to teach you to trust your own palate. She’ll show you the transcendent possibilities of an austere carrot harvested during the frost, while never forgetting the spiritual value of a Shamrock Shake.

Ruffage began when Abra was working at Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, writing a column for the Traverse City Record Eagle. In her column, she tackled questions she received at the farmers market like: ‘What do I do with a beet?’ and ‘What is a celery root?’ Ruffage gathers these columns into a beautiful, approachable tome. It’s a manual to bountiful midwestern farmers markets, demystifying ingredients and restaurant-worthy cooking methods. With Ruffage under your arm, you’ll have Abra by your side, helping you get your hands dirty, guiding your in-season vegetable selection and helping you plan your dinner menu. Ruffage gives readers with the tools they need to enjoy every harvest.

We had a chance to chat with Abra about her advice to home cooks and her time at Zingerman’s Delicatessen, the place where her culinary story started with a taste of chestnut honey.

Abra’s advice to home cooks

“You know what you like. Taste it, if you like it, that’s enough. This idea was eye-opening for me. Lots of people have knowledge, it’s your food, it’s your mouth. Trust your taste to waste less. Taste milk before you throw out, there are worse things in this world than tasting a little sour milk. Rodger taught me this when I asked him if we should throw away cilantro stems and he asked me if they tasted different than the leaves.”

Abra on her Zingerman’s experience

“Zingermans will always be home, in a lot of ways. This dinner is a representation of my food community on a plate. Zingerman’s set the foundation for me during my career, both in terms of learning about food, my first introduction to the local food movement, high-quality ingredients, the ethos of Zingerman’s. Zingerman’s set my path in terms of what my life was going to be. It still feels like home and still feels like a family.”

On what she takes from Zingerman’s into her life today

“The idea of servant leadership was a life changer for me. The idea that as you move up the ladder, that your customer service duty goes from guest to the staff members, so you can clear the path for them. I think about that all the time. What can I do to help people execute their job? Can I take the trash out for them? Can I bring popsicles to the crew at Granor on a super hot day when I can’t help with harvesting garlic?”

On her first day at the Deli

“It was early April of 2002. I remember it was extremely cold, I was running trays and I was very nervous. There was a whole new language of things to learn. I remember two things about that day. I remember being cold, and Dave Rice pulling me aside and saying, here you’re clearly cold, put your back on the convection oven, warm up, you’ve been outside all day, you can take 30 seconds to warm up. The same day, Rodger, a family friend, came up to me with chestnut honey and said, ‘Here you are Abra, try this honey, chestnut honey is not honey, honey – it’s a totally different flavor profile.’”

On her favorite Zingerman’s memories

“The daily things. The little moments that would happen… honestly, there’s a million anecdotes.”

Abra’s Zingerman’s shopping list

  • From the Deli:
    #13 on an onion roll, grilled*
    *Secret staff order

#85 with roasted red pepper sauce*
*Abra’s husband always gets it on a Paesano roll – he worked at the Deli, too.

  • From Mail Order: Piri piri mackerel
  • From Bakehouse: Chocolate sourdough buns and Apricot Hamentashen
  • From Deli retail: The newest, most interesting vinegars and oils, and domestic, English and Irish cheeses the Deli retail staff has tracked down