Artisan food for mass consumption

Should we still call it "artisan"?

"Everyone makes their own decisions," Taylor allows. "I'm not sitting here in judgment. I hand-make to the highest degree. I'm in there with my knife, I'm slicing my fruit. I guess there's a scale issue for me with artisanship: We cook a pot's yield. We're not using commercial pectin. We're very personally committed to our fruit."

For Taylor, artisanship implies intimacy. A true artisan is present at — and, ideally, involved in — every stage of a product's development.

Dealing in superlatives comes with a cost, as Taylor and McGreger readily acknowledge. "I know my work is not affordable for a lot of people," Taylor says. "That's a reality I had to accept and make my peace with. That's sad, because I don't have requirements that anyone buy from me regularly, but to be awakened to quality, that's what's important to me."

Mark Overbay of Big Spoon Roasters was inspired by ground-nut harvests in Zimbabwe
Kacy Johnson; Rochelle Johnson
Mark Overbay of Big Spoon Roasters was inspired by ground-nut harvests in Zimbabwe

"People don't necessarily want to put $8 jelly on their kids' PB&J. I get that," says McGreger, who prices her jams and preserves at $1.50 an ounce. "But the whole elitist argument has never, ever resonated with me because my family is from total humble beginnings, and we always cared about food and spent money on it. Now we all spend $100 a month on cell phones. Everyone has cable. It's insane."

Having to balance craft and community is a task peculiar to food artisans. While winemakers are generally fluent in sustainability and land stewardship, very few drinkers ask sommeliers to recommend something from a community-oriented vineyard to go with their duck confit. That's because while quality is primal in the wine industry, many mustard makers and muffin bakers explicitly launched their businesses as a means of reforming an industrial food culture rife with worker abuses, animal mistreatment, and unhealthy chemicals.

In their zeal to offer homespun alternatives to processed food, a few artisans have made decisions seemingly at odds with their stated goals of making everything better for John Q. Eater. Following the example set by bootstrap farms and restaurants, pickle makers and distillers regularly staff their bottling and labeling sessions with volunteers, in clear violation of labor laws intended to protect workers. And it's not uncommon for newly declared artisans to flout critical health-department regulations.

Of the 130 artisans selected as finalists for last year's Good Food Awards, five were disqualified for violating competition standards. "They weren't able to trace where their ingredients came from," director Sarah Weiner says. It's unclear whether the scofflaws were so caught up in the artisan craze that they figured there was easy money in a Good Food Awards gold seal (a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry, warns Dafna Kory of San Francisco's Inna Jam: "It's not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's a work-with-no-money scheme"), or if they were genuinely confused by rules governing fungicides and gestation crates. Banking on the latter, Weiner's San Francisco-based group is planning to roll out the Good Food Guild, an umbrella organization for the hundreds of unaffiliated artisans who yearly enter the awards competition.

"What we're going to do is connect and promote the whole industry," Weiner says. Guild members will be eligible for educational programming and collaborative marketing opportunities, including a massive trade show timed to coincide with the awards celebration.

In drafting its membership criteria, the guild has been forced to formalize its values, a few of which created regional conflicts when they first popped up in the awards process. "For example, initially we required cheesemakers to certify that organic feed and grass were the only thing their cows were eating," Weiner says. "We received thoughtful objections on this point from the Southern Cheesemakers Guild and several Southern cheesemakers. It is much harder for them to source organic feed in the South than here in California, though many are using locally grown and certainly pushing the envelope on artisan cheesemaking in the South."

So the word "organic" doesn't appear in the guild's guiding principles, but members are still forbidden from using synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides, a prohibition which strikes some producers as a California affectation.

"We use conventional pesticides," says Portia McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery, a 37-acre dairy that's known in North Carolina for its elegant interpretation of Camembert. "We feel it's the best situation for our cows. When you're actually farming, when your neighbor is also farming, you know they're not evil because they're spraying herbicides. They think conventional farming is the enemy, and I don't have that perspective at all. I think anything protecting farms is doing something valuable for our future."

McGreger, who sells alongside McKnight at the Carrboro Farmers Market, agrees: "It's not just about a high-quality product. It's bigger than that," says McGreger, who worked her family's sweet-potato fields as a girl in Vardaman, Mississippi. "I feel like wildness is one of our values. Supporting local agriculture. Preserving local land, that's a big part of it. To certain people, the things I'm saying are really political, but they're values my grandfather had, and to him it wasn't political."

The Good Food Guild calls upon its members to make food that's "an expression of tradition and culture" and to "use local ingredients whenever possible," but doesn't specifically ask them to agitate on behalf of farms or farmers. Torn between sensuality and advocacy, the many artisans who prize stories, vintage glassware, and gray sea salt are siding with the former. But for artisans without a built-in customer base ready to buy anything packaged in a darling burlap sack, the raging interest in high-quality heritage products represents an unparalleled opportunity for agricultural activism.


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