Locally based Ginger People tap the root’s medicinal powers to make business snap.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
The housewarming gift weighed as much as an elephant.
From the stone city of Chongwu, China, it traveled overland to a city named Qingdao in a province called Shandong and boarded a container vessel that steamed across the Yellow Sea to Pusan, South Korea. From there it went trundling over the largest water body in the world to dock in Oakland, before a truck took it south to the number-one-selling ginger-maker in North America, a family-owned company that also traffics the unrivaled rhizome in the U.K., Australia, Japan, Singapore and Kuwait (and soon New Zealand, United Arab Emirates and beyond) – pickled or pureéd, crystallized or candied, in sauces or spreads, fresh squeezed for “beers” or shredded for buttery shortbread.
Today the gift from the ginger-growing Yingfeng family stands 10 feet tall in front of the global headquarters of The Ginger People. Its size is surprising, but then again, the Chinese traditionally go heavy on housewarming, and the G.P. buys a very healthy amount of the medicinal ingredient from them.
More surprising than its 16,000-pound girth, then, might be the spot where the headquarters and the statue sit: on the outskirts of the modest California town called Marina.
Right before Christmas, a small population of Ginger People gathered in the headquarters’ industrial kitchen. V.P.s, warehouse staffers, salesmen and a quality control chief in a lab coat lay out carefully crafted plates of chipotle-gingered walnuts, parsnip-carrot-ginger soup with sweet ginger cream, ginger macaroons and caramel toffee-ginger cheesecake. It’s right before Christmas, but this is no holiday party. Something competitive is cooking.
The entrants move around the table carefully, as if tracking wild game, tasting “snowball effect” ginger ice cream in a homemade chocolate bowl, and making notations on a ballot that awards points for appearance, flavor, texture, recipe name and creative use of ginger.
Later the votes are compiled, and the year’s cumulative winner is announced. Controller Don Barkofsky looks like a favorite on the strength of dishes like OMG Chocolate Ginger Truffle Cake and Ginger Boolay at Halloween. Sure enough, the beancounter is branded champ.
Master herbalist Paul Schulick liked what he learned about ginger so much that he wrote the best-selling book Ginger: Common Spice and Wonder Drug, and planted 74 acres of it on an organic farm in Costa Rica. Here’s what he claims it can do:
• quell nausea
• support cardiovascular system
• boost energy and metabolism
• reduce inflammation, arthritis pain
• aid digestion
• treat colds and headaches
• inactivate free radicals
The contest is the brainchild of longtime Carmel resident and Ginger People V.P. Abbie Leeson, who met her husband and G.P. President Bruce “over nuts” – he was working with an expanding macadamia farm from his native Australia, she with Blue Diamond. What started as a side project for Bruce – after a ginger co-op neighbor approached him looking for an American market for its goods – gradually added an employee at a time until Ginger People was selling ginger in bulk, later branching into its own line of products, and ultimately staging its own bake-off.
“We want our team thinking about all the different ways to use ginger,” says Abbie, whose duties include marketing, design and recipe development. “Giving names lets them consider marketing concepts, and the things they come up with are a lot of fun – and fun to eat.”
Past entries run the gamut from appetizers to desserts, close-to-home classics to the out-there inventions: Ginger french fries, ginger ice cream sandwiches with giant ginger-snap bookends, ginger melon mousse, and ginger jalapeño sorbet rank among recent recipes.
“Only a few things can lift flavors,” says Frances Krebs, who, as industrial sales manager, works to incorporate ginger with big boys General Mills and Kraft, and local businesses like Monterey Bay Chocolates, Big Sur Bakery and Marianne’s Ice Cream. “Salt, vanilla and ginger.”
The list she rattles off makes sense. Ginger gives apple pie vibrancy and freshness. Bland tastes are brightened. Savory sauces gain excitement. Garlic, soy and herbs are accentuated.
“It livens up ingredients while remaining in the background,” she says.
G.P. marketing VP Christie Pearson offers a spicy example. “Take our hot jalapeño sauce,” she says. “The ginger adds more depth. Hot peppers are often just hot; this has an interesting layered effect, with other things like citrus tones going on. It’s sort of like drinking a fine wine versus vodka. Both will get you drunk, but one is a lot more complex.”
Harnessing the uplifting possibilities is a primary G.P. pursuit. There are delicious chocolate ginger snaps and hot coffee ginger chews, ginger juice and Thai green curry sauce (see sidebar, this page). Bruce estimates 40 percent of business is ingredient-based – supplying pureed, raw, grated, minced and crystallized ginger for use in final products under a client’s own label.
“We want to find a ginger for every palate,” Pearson says. “That little ginger person inside of everybody.”
Ghenghis Khan gave it to his troops. Chinese proverbs said it could help its users tame tigers; for centuries, Chinese families hung it above the doorway after having a baby to soak up unsavory personality traits before they sauntered in.
Seafaring 18th century sailors rubbed the natural preservatives on their meats. Some have used ginger in the bathtub after a long day to draw blood to the skin and relieve joint pain; after a long (and regal) lifetime, it would provide nourishment in the afterlife for members of the Chinese dynasty whose descendants placed it in their tombs. Even world-class horse trainers used it as a show-time suppository that added a little pep to their ponies’ step.
In short, ginger has been a historical pocketknife, handy in a catalog of situations inside and outside of the kitchen. Calling ginger versatile is like calling Big Sur aesthetically OK. When it comes to medicinal applications, though, its uses multiply like mad (see sidebar).
Eager eaters love it because it activates appetite, aids digestion and attacks acid reflux – “It’s great for the stomach,” says Monterey Bay Naturopathy founder Beatrice Levinson – but so do waistline watchers, because it mobilizes metabolism (and completes healthy sushi-eating experiences).
Ginger’s been credited with revving sex drive and mellowing menstruation, tempering liver ailments and warding off everything from anemia and leprosy to rheumatism, piles and jaundice. A spot of ginger tea has long been a trusted family antidote for cold and flu; now modern science is saying it not only helps sweat out impurities, but improves circulation and cooks the bacteria that cause illness. Princess Monterey and Monterey Bay Whale Watching carry Ginger People chews on board to quell motion sickness; it also works for vertigo.
With these healing powers hard to overstate, the fact that it makes cake taste better is icing. One would think that, given the blockbuster ad campaigns behind milk and meat, someone would ramp up a campaign to spotlight ginger’s super powers – Delicious! Nutritious! Medicinal! And cheap! – but it seems to remain a bit of a secret.
“People definitely don’t see it,” Carmel naturopath Heather Swallow says, “because we just know it for cooking. It’s the same with a lot of herbs – most people don’t know the medicinal value.”
“A lot of people know [it helps with] nausea a bit,” Pearson says. “From there, we find other people don’t know its uses unless they have a condition.”
Ginger gets spicier as it matures. Similarly, the most exciting developments in medicine are only heating up. Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center have found people with cancer can reduce post-chemotherapy nausea by 40 percent by using ginger supplements. The minds at University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center have seen promising returns in the treatment of ovarian cancer. It helps lower cholesterol and may help prevent the blood from clotting.
As cutting-edge science slices more deeply into the “root” ancients have adored for thousands of years, somewhere Confucius is smiling. He ate ginger with every meal. “Study the past,” he once said, “if you would define the future.”
From Marina the future looks good. That’s why the Ginger People – like the 16,000-pound statue in front of their headquarters, carved over the course of a year into the shape of G.P.’s ubiquitous mascot, “Gingie” – are smiling.
They were selling all-natural ginger products before the health, organic and foodie movements went mainstream. As a family-owned company, they’ve thrived on word of mouth and Google searches for “ginger,” which bodes well for business as their clientele spreads. Around here top grocers – Star Market, Whole Foods, Troia’s, 5th Avenue Deli, Cornucopia and Earthbound Farm Stand, among others – see their customers jump for it.
“They’re definitely picking it up, and love that it’s local,” says Clementine’s Kitchen rep Seth Fleischman, a raw food guy who throws ginger in his green smoothies. “The Ginger People make it fun with logos and all these creative sauces, but the candies are most popular.”
They’ve earned their peers’ affection, winning the prestigious Scovie Award for the original ginger and spicy apple chews, and the largest crowds at Fancy Foods Convention for their chili-ginger chocolate fountain last month.
And, like the statue, neither the Ginger People nor their affection for their flagship spice are going anywhere. Asked if they ever get sick of ginger, each Ginger Person offers an immediate “no.” Of course, given how much ginger they eat, they’re not often sick to begin with.