ANN ARBOR, Mich. – During a swing through the Midwest, I had to answer a burning existential question regarding the University of Michigan.
Are Wolverines fans happier because their school hired Brady Hoke as head coach or because of the misfortune that has befallen Ohio State’s program?
No. Not that one. This one.
Should I be a Zingerman’s person or a Maize and Blue person?
Like Lakers vs. Celtics, Ford vs. Chevy or Beatles vs. Stones, the answer probably says more about the person as a whole than that person’s preference of deli/NBA team/domestic pick-up truck/British Invasion superstars. A Zingerman’s person and a Maize and Blue person might work together, but they probably don’t move in the same social orbits. If someone took a swing at you in a bar, you’d probably want a Maize and Blue person to have your back. If after that bar fight you got arrested, you’d probably want a Zingerman’s person to represent you.
When I walked into Zingerman’s on a recent Saturday night, I stood in line behind well-dressed – but not conservatively dressed – patrons who eagerly picked the brains of the employees about the sources of the breads and meats lining the walls. When I walked into Maize and Blue on a recent Sunday afternoon, I brushed past a guy carrying a to-go box and wearing a shirt that proclaimed “Beer is the only reason I get up every afternoon.” That about sums it up.
Eating at Zingerman’s feels like dining inside a Prius commercial. If I’d thought to ask, I’m sure one of the strategically pierced and tattooed employees would have been thrilled to tell me the name of the farmer who grew my $6 side of jalapeno peaches. At Maize and Blue, I asked the guy at the register whether I should order white or wheat bread. “Wheat is supposed to be healthier,” he said. “But white tastes better.”
Each half of that last paragraph probably evoked a certain emotion. If you read the part about the peaches and thought, “I wonder what kind of fruitcake mixes peaches and jalapenos,” then you’re a Maize and Blue person. If you thought, “I wonder if those peaches are organic,” then you’re a Zingerman’s person.
Why have I spent so many words describing clientele and ambience? Because those will have to be your arbiters; the food is fantastic at both places.
Zingerman’s is a pleasure garden of carbohydrate and protein delights. While waiting in line, customers pick at samples of gourmet pretzels and dunk sourdough in gourmet olive oils. I ordered a large Jon and Amy’s Double Dip. That’s a corned beef and pastrami with Switzerland Swiss and Wisconsin muenster cheeses, hot and regular mustards on pumpernickel and rye breads. Between the sandwich, the peaches and a large dark chocolate gelato, my bill came to $30 before tip. The food was delicious, but if I’m going to spend $30 at a deli, the sandwiches had better be comically huge like the ones at the iconic New York delis. Either that, or I’d better leave drunk. The sandwich was delicious – perfect corned beef and pastrami and just enough mustard – but never once did I have to unhinge my jaw like Diana in the original V miniseries. As I ate my gelato, a group of college students perused the dessert case. “Man,” one said, “this place is mad expensive.”
Maize and Blue is a tiny hole in the wall a few blocks from Michigan’s campus. Unlike Zingerman’s, it doesn’t serve Boylan pure cane sugar sodas from a self-serve fountain. It serves Coke products from a fountain behind the counter. Its greatest claim to fame is that when Michael Phelps trained for the Olympics at Michigan’s natatorium, he liked to carbo-load using Maize and Blue sandwiches. Quantity would not be an issue at Maize and Blue.
I have a general rule at restaurants. If the place names one menu item after the restaurant itself, it means the proprietor considers this item the quintessential representation of the restaurant. I usually order this item, and, fairly or unfairly, make value judgments about the rest of the menu. At Maize and Blue, I ordered a 16-inch – not a typo – Maize and Blue Special. That’s roast beef, smoked turkey, cheddar, Jarlsberg cheese, honeycup mustard, lettuce and mild peppers. (For the curious types, honeycup mustard is a vaguely erotic term that describes spicy honey mustard.) The sandwich came sliced in four sections. It looked as if it had eaten two Zingerman’s sandwiches while training to become my sandwich. The honeycup mustard gave an ideal sweet-and-spicy kick to the smokiness of the turkey and roast beef. And the dude behind the counter was correct – the white bread just tasted better. That leviathan of a sandwich and an M&M cookie the size of my face cost about $18 before tip.
So who am I? Am I a Zingerman’s person or a Maize and Blue person? My younger self almost certainly would have embraced Maize and Blue, but now I’ve got a decent job and a different perspective. I shouldn’t feel guilty for dropping 30 bucks on a scrumptious, farm-to-table-friendly culinary creation. Should I?
Yes. I should. While I’ve gained an appreciation for the occasional dipping of the toe into fancier waters, I was born a Maize and Blue person. I’ll die a Maize and Blue person. If given the option of smug, semi-full satisfaction or an unhinged jaw, I’ll take the unhinged jaw every time.
Pre-meal Workout: Before Zingerman’s – None. Don’t judge me.
Post-meal Workout: After Maize and Blue – Five-mile run through Michigan campus.
Featured workout tune: Down for the Count – Girl Talk (Yes, the one that samples Belinda Carlisle.)