Zin Eschews Chic, Thankfully

by Jeff Siegel

California’s Sonoma County is part and parcel of what’s chic and trendy about American cuisine, whether it’s food piled eight feet high on a plate or ingredients no one has ever heard of. Yet Jeff Mall, who is the chef and co-owner of a restaurant called Zin in Healdsburg in the heart of wine country, is about as chic and trendy as collard greens, red beans and biscuits allow him to be. Which is not at all, and which is just fine with Mall.

That’s because he belongs to a group called the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), which provides a service and offers insight and wisdom even to those who don’t think southern food applies to them. For it does. Southern cooking is this country’s only real regional cuisine, and the SFA’s goal is to honor it, preserve it, and pass along its traditions before they are lost in the maze of fast food restaurants, celebrity chef recipes, and processed grocery store products that dominate the American table these days.

Those of us who have taken the pledge (and I’ve been an SFA member almost since it was formed, which is a pretty neat trick for a Midwestern boy) understand that southern food is not just about grits and greens, though that’s part of it. It’s about food that tastes like it’s supposed to taste, about using fresh ingredients, and about using seasonal ingredients only in season. It’s about using food to bring people together, as corny as that sounds – whether it’s the modern American family or something even larger. Leah Chase, the doyenne of New Orleans’ Dooky Chase restaurant, once told the group: “There is no greater way of knowing a person than to know their food. It talks to you about who you are and what you are.”

In this, the SFA has much in common with the Slow Foods movement – it holds an academic-style conference each year, plus an annual field trip to a Southern city to taste that area’s particular specialty (Nashville last year, Charleston this year). But it’s a little more subversive, thanks to director John T. Edge. John T., as everyone calls him, doesn’t see why food can’t be used to discuss the burning issues of the day. That means he is not averse to scheduling a discussion about segregation in the restaurant business in the Jim Crow South after lunch at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham. The lunch was one of the best meals I have ever had, and the discussion was just as good.

All of which means the next time I’m in Healdsburg, I’m eating red beans at Zin. Jeff Mall understands.

(Photo of Chef Jeff Mall used with permission.)

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