Don’t let the title of this post mislead you. All (gastronomical) three of us are fans of the big Z and feel extraordinarily lucky to have it in our town. We all put in our time on the cheese line, exasperated with the crowds, sometimes more exasperated with being educated by the uber-friendly staff, but still very grateful. At Zingerman’s, young Nick learned to appreciate rustic Italian dipped in fine olive oil at the tender age of one, and we can’t drive within a five block radius of the deli without him calling out insistently, “the bagel store, Mama, the bagel store!”
But in some ways, it’s too easy to fall back on the loaf of chocolate-cherry bread or jar of Italian chestnut honey or really, really great bottle of vinegar, and I forget what an amazing town Ann Arbor is for stocking the pantry and, well, the stocking. So, in honor of the holidays and the accompanying gift-buying frenzy, we’d like to remind you of some of the many places in Ann Arbor where you can buy gifts that please the palate and the eye — with the bonus of supporting the local merchants that are our friends and neighbors and that do so much to give our town its special and delicious character.
I could probably do my holiday shopping from start to finish just by wandering around the Kerrytown shops. Let’s start on the ground floor, with Sparrows Meats and Produce. Now, personally, I’d be pretty excited to find a whole leg of lamb or a pound of Parma ham under the tree, but I realize I might be in the minority. Still, Sparrow’s has a lot (and more all the time) of attractive speciality goods that would look pretty in a basket or canvas tote (and there are some really cute Ann Arbor totes with monkeys and coyotes and such outside at the market on Saturday and Sundays.) Lately, I’ve been particularly taken with the breakfast items. How about a basket of pancake mix, pure maple syrup and fancy pants jams? With a pound of Michigan bacon on top?
If you’re more inclined toward evening pleasures, wander next door to Everyday Wines and pick up something from their eclectic and thoughtful selection of wines for under twenty-five dollars. They have a small but pretty selection of wine glasses as well, and a couple of Reidel O glasses might make a nice addition to that bottle.
One of my new favorite places to browse is the recently opened Spice Merchants upstairs. It’s a very attractive space filled with herbs and spices and swanky containers to put them in. There are a lot of flavored rubs and spice combinations that might please those inclined towards grilling and marinades. My pick would have to be a selection of sea salts. The salts come in a variety of textures and colors (black, grey, pinks, white, red) and look really beautiful in combination. You could assemble your own assortment or pick up a gift crate packed with a “salts of the sea” combination. (Shana recommends a salt tasting with popcorn — a good way to wile away those long holiday afternoons!)
If you want to give your food-fond loved ones something a little more durable, stop in at Everyday Cook where table and kitchenware are arrayed like art objects in the exposed brick and bare wood gallery setting of the shop. There’s a nice mix of inexpensive and useful kitchen tools and higher-end cooking utensils and serving dishes. Last year I bought John a new rectangular pizza stone there for about 25 dollars and it’s been helping us turn out one great pizza after another ever since. Right now, I’m liking those white serving dishes you can see in the back of the photo above. In case anybody’s wondering.
Even though it’s pretty cold outside these days, you should leave the building to go around the corner and check out Tracklements. Tracklements is one of those places that has more of a reputation outside of Ann Arbor than in it. It has a thriving mail order business and has been mentioned in the the New York Times. But it’s tiny and not open very often, so I think it doesn’t get as much local attention as it deserves. JR offers some great gift assortments on his web site. If you’re able to stop in sometime when he’s open (Saturday mornings always work) you can put something together yourself. I’ve never been able to quite get my head around all the varieties of smoked salmon (scottish, pecan, tamari, etc, etc) but every one that I’ve tried has been wonderful. For the holidays, I’m particularly partial to the elegant (and somewhat lighter) smoked trout.
And yes, especially because it’s pretty cold outside these days, you should at least make a run through the market if you’re there on a Saturday. Buy something from those nice folks just to reward them for their bravery in showing up on the mornings when it’s dark until almost eight and always below freezing. Most of what’s out there is more of the hostess gift or stocking stuffer variety than the big-present-under-the tree sort of thing, but I can’t imagine anyone would turn up a nose at pound of fresh biscotti or some farm-made jam.
Once you’ve stocked up at Kerrytown, head down to Downtown Home and Garden which during the holidays looks like a cook’s version of a toy store. It’s got everything you need to equip yourself for holiday baking (or to set someone else up in style). It’s only the past year or so that I’ve begun to overcome my resistance to baking, but their array of cookie cutters, sheet pans and cute little tins inspires me to buy pounds of butter and start covering the kitchen in flour. Need something to contain all those edibles you picked up over at Kerrytown? Check out these beauties:
And DGH also has buckets of Christmas cuteness in the form of ornaments and small toys that you can use for the final, festify-ing touches on your gift baskets.
For a final shopping stop, I’d recommend Morgan and York. Sadly, you’ll probably get in your car for this one, although if you’re a hardy type and don’t mind Packard traffic zooming by, it’s a possible walk from downtown. I’m only just getting around to forgiving the betrayal of the beloved Big 10 Party Store name and the horrifying rumor that the current owners wanted to take down the Cheese, Cheese, Cheese sign. I called the store “Pecan and Pork” for about a year in protest. Nevertheless, they’ve steadily won my affections. I really like the folks that work there and their cute little blue coats and mostly their amazing selection. Everyone is friendly and smart and enthusiastic about food and they have beautiful cheeses, charcuterie and various preserved things. If you want something a little less perishable, they have a lot of high end packaged goods, great (but slightly pricey at fifteen dollars a pound) locally roasted coffee and the best selection of Haribo gummi candy in town. They do appealing pre-packed gift baskets, all lined up to grab and go, but if you have the time, it seems a lot more fun to put one together yourself. But mostly, of course, they have wine. Crates and crates of it. They don’t have many low-end bottles, but they have an enormous and interesting selection in the 15-30 dollar range. If you’re feeling really generous (or festive), they have a ten percent mixed case discount. It’s an easy place to fill a case.
While we’re in Morgan and York, I want to give a special shout-out to Sweet Gems, the confectionary that they host. Sweet Gem’s truffles have to be the prettiest edible gift in town. They come in both familiar and exotic flavors, are adorned with stunning leaf and flower patterns and beautifully packaged in clear or aqua boxes with lovingly tied bows. And the nice Morgan and York guys are equally patient if you’re picking out two or two dozen.
I have a guilty feeling that I’ve just presented my Christmas wish list in the guise of buy-local boosterism, but I’m trying to assuage that by believing that at least a few of you might share my tastes or know someone that does. I’ve missed a lot of places in town and might get a chance to circle back to them before the holidays, but I’m also wondering what our readers have to say. What local treat would you like to receive this holiday season?