San Francisco's multi-generational, family-owned Bi-Rite Market has expanded under Sam Mogannam (his father and uncle founded the market in the 1960s) to include a creamery and bakeshop, several small farms in Sonoma and Placerville, and an art/community space. But cookbook author Mogannam says in the Introduction that he never intended to be a grocer.
And so, as the typical second generation family business story tends to go, he high tailed it to culinary school and later a Switzerland restaurant kitchen, about as far away from Aisle 2 as he could get (he later returned to San Francisco and opened his own restaurant).
The Moroccan lamb meatloaf (p. 191) epiphany that brought him back to the market occurred when Mogannam was about to turn 30. He took his father's offer to run the business under the condition that Mogannam could shake up those grocery aisles with his renovated vision (a grocery store renovation is exactly what he started with in 1997). Which gets us, nearly 15 years later, to the cookbook side of things.The subtitle is actually spot-on here, unlike so many: A Grocer's Guide to Shopping, Cooking & Creating Community through Food. In essence, the book is a photo and shopping list-driven guide to the grocery store aisle-by-aisle. Or, in 2012 grocer speak, "department" by department. That it is co-written by former San Francisco Chronicle contributor Dabney Gough is evident in the efficiency of those olive oil side bars (she also formerly worked as Bi-Rite's Marketing Director).
The chapter shopper learns the differences between olive oils, like what nuovo oil is (unfiltered, first press oil), why it is so coveted ("the younger olives yield less oil...but what they do produce is pungent, intensely flavorful and highly prized") and what to do with it (finish pasta; drizzle it over burrata cheese, add a loaf of bread and call it dinner).
What follows are personal reflections and profiles of producers like Shari de Joseph and Jeff Creque, staffers at McEvoy Ranch (a Petaluma olive oil producer) and other edible tidbits (how to store olive oil, how to conduct a tasting, what that harvest date really means). You know, the useful stuff. For a cookbook with an unavoidable promotional angle -- you can purchase these products at Bi-Rite Market, after all -- it is refreshingly sales pitch-free. The authors are well aware that few of us are going to be shopping at Bi-Rite Market, so the book is more of a general map of quality ingredients that you find yourself sorting through by the overwhelming dozens at farmers markets and small local grocers. And here, it's a very useful cheese department and butcher shop map.
It also comes with a New Year's bonus. By the time you get to the recipes at the end of each chapter, like the raw kale Caesar salad, chicken soup with fennel, chickpeas and chard, and the lemon curd tart in "The Produce Department," that resolution to Eat Good Food won't seem like a resolution at all. After all, what defines "good" for you food depends entirely on how you look at that farmers market strawberry-rhubarb pie with ginger-crumb topping (p. 120).