How would you describe your neighborhood grocer? Chances are – if you think of him at all – you picture an unremarkable sort of guy, responsible mainly for keeping your local store stocked with the few items you deem essential.
Steven Jenkins – author, cheesemonger, and food buyer for Fairway Markets since 1980 – set out to change that drab stereotype.
According to Jenkins, once dubbed the “enfant terrible of the fancy food business” by The New York Times, a grocer “is one of the most important persons in life, right up there with your doctor or mate.”
“The grocer sanctifies every edible substance that comes into your house,” he said, adding that food experts “need to be autodidacts. You can’t wait for someone to fill you up with food knowledge.”
Grocers need to realize the large responsibility they have and read whatever they can, he said, noting that in 1975 he decided to become “the best cheesemonger the world has ever known.”
“It happened,” he said. “I made my reputation as a master cheesemonger.”
The first American cheesemonger inducted into France’s Guilde des Fromagers and a partner as well as buyer for Fairway, Jenkins has a particular fondness for olive oil, which he describes as “endlessly fascinating.”
He welcomes the opportunity to share that enthusiasm, and on Dec. 16 will visit Temple Beth Or in Washington Township to lead an olive oil tasting.
“If people don’t consider olive oil the most important substance in their larder, they are making a fundamental error,” Jenkins told The Jewish Standard, noting that while there are three schools of cooking – characterized by the fat they use – “we adhere to the school of cooking that involves olive oil because not only does it have endless fascination and variety but it’s good for you. It’s a life-giving substance.”
At the Beth Or Chanukah event, attendees will be able to sample seven to nine different olive oils, partnered with three prepared food dishes.
The high-profile grocer, credited with introducing the world “artisanal” into the modern food scene, said his wife uses olive oil for everything and that that it “absolutely” can be used to make potato latkes.
“There’s no such thing as the ‘best’ olive oil,” he said. “One need only determine whether strong flavors are appealing or not.” He pointed out that when you heat olive oil, “it neutralizes all the interesting things about it, its organoleptic properties, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Jenkins – a regular food commentator on television who has been named one of the 25 most important people in the history of the American specialty foods industry by Gourmet Retailer in it 25th anniversary issue – says that given olive oil’s variety of fragrances and nuances of flavor, “it’s every bit as complex as any other foodstuff in the entire realm of gastronomy.”
Jenkins said Fairway grocers are “idiots savants as regards foodstuffs. That’s why we’ve attained such a lofty rank. Our customers know we’re devoted to the foods we import and develop.”
He pointed out that while olive oil comes from all over the world, its home is “the Mediterranean base from Israel to Spain. We’re students of Mediterranean history and cuisine,” he said, adding that not only does he do “voluminous” reading and research for his own writings but requires his staff to do reading as well.
Jenkins, who majored in theater at college, said that while his grandmother was a great cook and his grandfather a great gardener – he had a tomato named after him in Columbia, Mo. – “beyond the enjoyment of food, I had no earthly idea that I would became what I am today.”
He joined Fairway in 1980, “importing whatever thrills you and writing the copy for everything.”
The author most recently of “The Food Life,” a behind-the-scenes look at Fairway, the New York-based chain that recently opened a store in Paramus, Jenkins says artisanal food is “made by people, not by big factories and machines. It has a connection to people, land, locale, and supernatural things, like air and sunlight, that make it wonderful.”
For information about the Beth Or program, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the synagogue’s Website, www.templebethornj.org.