The Zingerman’s Conundrum
Posted by Jew from Jersey
15 October 2018
In the 1990s, the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan was home to many professors and other lecturers and fellows who consistently and reliably railed against capitalism, both in the classroom and out. They could be counted on to side against it in any discussion even tangentially related to economics. They seemed to bring up the subject of capitalism even when economics was not the subject, listing and describing in detail its many injustices and outrages. Sometimes they seemed to picture it as the root cause of all the world’s evils, economic or otherwise, even the source of the smallest personal and interpersonal misfortunes.
The city was also home to Zingerman’s Deli, purveyor of all manner of smoked meats and cheeses, artisan baked goods, and other sumptuous delicacies. Zingerman’s was not just a place to get a bite to eat. There were many other fine delis in town which had nothing to be ashamed of in terms of quality, variety, and sophistication. But Zingerman’s was a cut above them all. It was almost an institution of culture. It also was not cheap. For example, a loaf of bread there cost between 5-10 times what a regular loaf would cost at the supermarket, although maybe only 2-3 times what craft bread would cost at other delis or specialty bakeries at the time.
Zingerman’s was also the gold standard for the professors and other academic hangers-on who so loved to berate capitalism and hold it responsible for the world’s ills. They mentioned shopping at Zingerman’s and raved about particular products there with almost the same frequency and enthusiasm that they badmouthed everything capitalist. And it seemed most events they hosted were catered by Zingerman’s or at least featured a few choice items from there. I do not question the high caliber of Zingerman’s products, I merely wish to convey that for this particular capitalism-hating subculture, Zingerman’s represented more than just quality food. To them, it was their in-house eatery and caterer, like I gather Peliti’s was for the Anglo-Indians of Rudyard Kipling’s day. And it signaled their tastes as being a mark above people who did not shop there.
And herein lies the conundrum.
Did they imagine that such emporiums as Zingerman’s were even possible in non-capitalist systems? Perhaps they did. If so, they were probably wrong. Economic systems that lack a profit motive are notoriously bad at logistics. You can get a worker, a truck driver for instance, to work from 9 to 5 under threat of prison or having his ration card revoked, but you can’t get anything anywhere that absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight. The Soviet Union grew a prodigious amount of food in its collective farms, but anything with a shelf-life shorter than potatoes tended to rot in storage or in transit. Besides the problem of transporting the goods from point of production to the hub, there’s the matter of distributing the goods from the hub to the point of consumption. Perishables that did make it out of the farms, forests, and fisheries of the Soviet Union tended to end up only in the capital city of Moscow. And we’re talking about simple produce. Anything remotely like the specialty items of Zingerman’s were usually only available in such small quantities that they were restricted to special stores in the capital open only to the highest-ranking inner party members. The existence of a place like Zingerman’s, open to the public every day, in a mid-size city in the Midwest, hundreds of miles from any major transport hub, let alone from the places that these wonders originated in, is almost the pinnacle crowning glory of capitalist logistical achievement at its finest. Did they realize how complex an economy had to be, with freedom of enterprise and opportunity for a healthy profit at every step of the way, in order that all these things might arrive fresh every day to such a non-central and unprivileged location? Maybe they did not understand this.
Or maybe they did understand it, but imagined themselves to be the high-ranking elite who would always be guaranteed the very best under any system. They were for the most part little-known teachers of general education classes at a large state university, one of hundreds like it. They occasionally published minor works of scholarship in some obscure field. Did they really think they were so important as to merit all this in a system that would have less of it to spare?
But even if they saw themselves as the valued and irreplaceable vanguard of the movement, didn’t they ever consider that there was something strange about such ritual conspicuous consumption of gourmet foods while extolling a presumably more egalitarian way of life?
And besides the incongruence of their lifestyle with their stated economic preferences, there was also the incongruence of the social elitism obviously inherent in their choices. I don’t think they failed to notice how highbrow their tastes were. This was almost the whole point of it.
But I never saw any hint that any of them experienced this as any kind of disconnect.
Years later, in 2007, such a disconnect was noticed when a German politician named Sahra Wagenknecht of “The Left” party was photographed in a restaurant eating lobster, apparently setting off some sort of mini-scandal in Germany. The Guardian (German communist in hot water after dining out on lobster, 17 Dec 2007) quotes her as saying:
She has a point on both counts. But she only said this defensively. No anti-capitalist ever set out to make the case for their preferred alternative by promoting luxury goods. And she admitted erasing the photos from her friend’s camera after the story got out. The most interesting aspect of this German lobstergate story is that it was noticed and aroused some attention. I’m surprised this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often among the leftist parties of the world. Political elites of all parties, including the socialist ones, tend to live the good life while they’re waiting for the revolution.
Of course, I do not begrudge anyone fine food, even the most ardent of communists. There’s no logical reason not to eat what you like and can afford just because your dream of equality hasn’t materialized yet. But then why was this a scandal in Germany? Why did Wagenknecht erase the pictures? Why was she defensive? Maybe instead of asking why the lumpenprofessoriate of Ann Arbor were never bothered by this kind of thing, one should ask why people like me continue to find it so bizarre.
I’ll tell you why:
Because they never said: “We expect to have to do without Zingerman’s soon when the revolution comes and Mr. Zingerman is swinging from the nearest lamppost and we’ll all be happily eating our corn pone and Ramen noodles with our lower-class brethren. But hey, until then, let’s live it up.”
Nor did they say: “Capitalism has such a stranglehold on America that our lower-class unfortunates are forever condemned to eat tasteless slop, but at least we don’t have to. Lucky us.”
Nor did they ever say: “When the revolution comes, all Americans except for us will be put on a permanent diet of organic quinoa and green tea, but we, the faculty and staff of the University of Michigan, are so important, that Zingerman’s, with the same inventory as always and with everything continuing to arrive fresh each day, but now nationalized and under government control, will be kept open as an inner party canteen for us and us only.”
Nor did they ever say, to paraphrase Frau Wagenknecht: “We’re fighting for a society in which everyone can afford Zingerman’s.” Nor would they say such a thing, since the whole appeal of Zingerman’s seemed to be its exclusivity.
After several decades of wondering about this, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess why these two sets of behaviors proved so appealing to them and seemed to be so central to their identity, and why they never said anything to address the possible incongruities between them. I must assume that they lacked the introspection necessary to ask themselves these questions, or at least lacked the honesty to ever say anything about it. If they had, maybe they would have said something like: “We are intolerable snobs underservedly living the greatest lives in the history of this planet. Our anti-capitalism is just one more status symbol of how much better we are than everyone else. Can you believe those idiots who eat at Subway think capitalism is good?!”
Or even: “We love our lives and our food, but we know other people can’t afford it and maybe think we’re strange for even liking it. Maybe they resent us. If they dislike us even half as much as we dislike them, we might be in danger. Hanging cloves of anti-capitalism on our doors might keep the danger away. But the anti-capitalist charm against danger only works if you make yourself really, really believe it.”
Or maybe: “We are a lonely, godless, uprooted flotsam who came here for university jobs. We don’t fit in with the native community and besides envying their sense of belonging, we are somewhat afraid of them. Being atheists, we cling to material pleasures. Having no connection to the land and its people, we cling to an institution we can say is superior, like the Anglo-Indians of Kipling’s time clung to Peliti’s. Anti-capitalism is our way of resolving the opulence of our physical existence with the barren yearnings of our inner lives.”
But whatever they might have said, weren’t they at least a little bit worried that some of their anti-capitalism might eventually succeed enough to have consequences that would disrupt some of Zingerman’s supply of rarified items just a little, even if only temporarily?