July 9, 1995—19 years ago yesterday—is the “birthday” of Zingerman’s Mail Order. Sort of. Actually we kind of made it up.
Our anniversary isn’t as clear-cut as at some other businesses. We didn’t have a first day that we opened our doors the way Zingerman’s Delicatessen did on March 15, 1982. We don’t have a record of the first day we made a product the way Zingerman’s Bakehouse baked their first loaves of bread on September 13, 1992; we’ve always shipped food when people asked for it. July 9, 1995 was the day Mo Frechette arrived in New York City in his Toyota Tercel and introduced himself as being from “Zingerman’s Mail Order.”
Remember some of the food trends that have come and gone in the last two decades?
There were the sun dried tomatoes on everything; the caesar salads and then the kale salads; high fiber; wasabi; the rise of the locavore; superfoods; the campaigns against carbs, fat, gluten. In spite of our food infatuations, a lot has stayed the same. Thumbing through the catalog we wrote in 1995, it’s remarkable how many of the same products we still sell. There are dozens of them, everything from brownies and bread to mustard and rice.
These “trendless” foods are consistently really good, year after year.
Take cheese. There are a handful of cheeses in the old catalog that we still carry today, from the ever-popular Parmigiano-Reggiano to lesser-known greats like Ig Vella’s Dry Jack and Appleby’s Cheshire. The Appleby’s Cheshire’s entry from 19 years ago reads, “This is the only authentic English Farmhouse Cheshire left on the planet. Sticking with instincts and skills she’s honed over half a century of Cheshire making, Mrs. Appleby makes a great eating cheese; golden orange color, crumbly texture and light, tongue-tickling flavor.” That’s all still true today, except now it’s Mrs. Appleby’s kids and grandkids making the cheese.
That may seem quaint and romantic, but think for a minute about what it means to make that same cheese for generations, day after day. Every day they start with the unpasteurized milk of their own herd of cows and turn it into cheese in a vat the size of a couple of bathtubs, using their hands to break up the curds and to set them into molds. The cheese is wrapped in cloth, not wax, which allows it to develop more complex flavors. Each day the milk will be a little different, the weather will be a little different, and the cheese they make will end up being a little different. But day after day, year after year, the Applebys make that cheese, and ups or downs, trends or not, we’ve sold it. Nineteen years from now I bet the story will be the same.
The same goes for olive oil, vinegar, and just about any of our products.
Back then, our olive oil collection included newly-discovered oils like Tenuta di Valgiano, Castello della Paneretta, and Roi. We sold Vecchia Dispensa balsamic and Banyuls vinegar. We shipped the same Corned Beef and Arkansas Peppered Ham that we still use on our sandwiches today. We had pasta from Martelli and Rustichella; we had Cherry Berry Spoonfruit Preserves and Lavender Honey and Leccino Olives. Nearly two decades later they’re all still here in spite of us tasting dozens of other oils, pastas, preserves and more every year.
Of course, there are plenty of items in that old catalog that are long gone, too. Some of them have been gone so long that no one even remembers them. When I mentioned to Mo that we used to sell a gift basket with fresh fruit, he laughed and replied, “Really? I must have blocked that one.” (Yes, really. In the old catalog it was called “The Classic” and had cheeses including Emmentaler Swiss, bread, crackers, and a “seasonal fruit selection.”)
We taste a hundred new foods every week and bring on dozens of new ones every year. We even have two food clubs (one sent monthly, one quarterly) devoted to highlighting our latest finds. The new foods tend to get to get a lot of the attention, but there’s a reason that some foods have had such longevity on our shelves—and in our own pantries.