Artisan food for mass consumption
If a hard freeze in April hadn't annihilated northern Michigan's tart-cherry crop, a little boy in Beijing might have been pouring Herkner's Original Cherry Topping over his mung-bean ice cream right now. But the fickle weather forced Lynda Herkner, 74, and her sisters to delay plans to export their siren-red dessert goo — "It tastes like a fresh cherry pie," Herkner beams — and focus on their domestic successes. In the three years since they committed their family recipe to 16-ounce jars, the Herkners have placed their product in restaurants, specialty shops, and one of the state's biggest grocery chains.
"It's been a wonderful ride," Herkner says. "We're really going. We want to be a Smucker's."
The Herkners first sold their topping in 1962, when President Eisenhower invited their father to join a delegation of farmers headed to Russia on a goodwill program. Ozzie Herkner discarded the letter, knowing he couldn't afford to travel halfway around the world to chat with collectivists. But after his wife, Etta, found the invitation in the trash, she insisted on opening a "Get Ozzie to Russia" stand on the edge of their cherry orchard. A photograph of the Herkner girls in shirtwaist dresses, leaning out of the booth with their double-crust pies, ran in newspapers across the country.
Lynda, Sue, and Mary Jean sold 1,000 pies, breads, cherries, and a smattering of the dessert topping concocted by their parents, owners of the second-largest cherry farm on the Old Mission Peninsula, a fertile jut of land that now gets by on wineries and weddings. The elder Herkners believed they could sell even more topping, but were stumped by scaling. "They really wanted to market it, but they couldn't multiply the recipe," Lynda Herkner recalls.
Thus the topping remained a housebound treat. But when Lynda Herkner's retirement schedule soured after 28 years in the real-estate business, her sisters decided to revisit the family recipe's windfall potential. "They got to worrying about me," Herkner says. After a gangbusters consultation with a chemist, the Herkners started buying up Michigan cherries and signed a contract with a co-packer. They've since outgrown their co-packer twice.
Despite the Smucker's-sized aspirations and reliance on outsourcing, the Herkners consider themselves artisans. "We have an excellent product that's all-natural and all-Michigan, except for the pure almond extract," Herkner says. "And we started out as small as you can start."
The word "artisan" has never had a clear definition, although most producers agree it's somehow intertwined with tradition and quality. But now the term is being stretched like saltwater taffy, and its limits are being closely monitored by food producers who have to make immediate decisions about if, when, and how to grow their endeavors without dishonoring the principles that first led them to the kitchen. Few artisans are vocally doctrinaire; none of the dozens interviewed for this story were willing to attach their names to the questions they raised about the legitimacy of mechanized equipment, co-packing arrangements, and corporate backing. Perhaps because media depictions of artisans aren't always flattering, they perpetually emphasized their support of fellow producers' choices.
But the field remains unsettled. When determining the size and scope of their businesses, artisans must place such unwieldy concepts as beauty, social justice, heritage, sustainability, and taste on opposite sides of the same scale. The process has exposed a gamut of intellectual, geographic, and economic tensions in a community reluctant to acknowledge conflict.
"I just went to Japan and was totally charmed by people like the ninth-generation knife maker who makes only 70 knives a year and the eighth-generation chopstick maker who personally lathes all of the cedar chopsticks," says Nathalie Jordi of People's Pops, which makes ice pops and shaved ice from fresh herbs and fruit. People's Pops recently purchased a packaging machine so Jordi and her partners can spend time previously squandered hand-sealing bags on sourcing fruit and testing new flavors. "The stories are priceless, and you can't help but feel infinite respect for people who dedicate their lives to mastering a craft," Jordi says. "It's a beautiful and a special thing. It just doesn't happen to be what our goal is at People's Pops. I'm more driven by visions of public-school kids someday eating pops made with actual fruit. To me, that's beautiful and special, too."
People's Pops is based in New York City, but Jordi's pragmatism reflects the artisan approach that's taken hold beyond the urban centers commonly associated with thoughtful food. Herkner, for example, concedes she doesn't look much like the stock artisan caricature, with his porkpie hat, waxed mustache, and bicep tattooed with a 19th-century etching of a pickle press. But as those earnest San Franciscans and Brooklynites scuffle over the meaning of artisanship, Herkner and her sisters are charging headlong toward the goal of changing the way their fellow Michiganders eat.
The topping's popularity has also reawakened interest in cherries, a crop so devalued in recent decades that a 10-acre oasis surrounding Herkner's sister's house is all that remains of the once-sprawling Herkner family farm. Herkner is confident that her parents' recipe can help shield other northern Michigan farms from the same fate.
Very few big-city artisans mess with frozen fruit and co-packers, linchpins of the Herkners' ambitious business plan. Although small-scale producers defend their choices as quality-driven, many of them privately admit they're fearful that other artisans will dismiss their work if they don't personally slice their fruit and stir their pots.
"I've heard other jam makers say that using a co-packer 'doesn't feel very artisan,' so I worry that I'll be turned out of the artisan club if I consider that option — even though our local co-packer is pretty hands-on and I would be present," says Rebecca Staffel, who uses the term "artisan" to market the award-winning preserves she sells under the Deluxe Foods label. "We recently bought a big chopper for our rhubarb and apples. Does that mean I can't say the jam is completely handcrafted anymore? I worry about the shocking exposé sometimes."
Staffel is trying to find smart ways to grow her Seattle company. But plenty of talented chutney makers, kombucha technicians, and mustard mixers are deliberately keeping their businesses as tiny as the market will allow. They painstakingly sink local asparagus spears into brine perfumed with lavender blooms and hand-grind organic, fair-trade vanilla beans for cocktail bitters, a bottle of which sells for three times the price of a Bud Light six-pack.
Artisans' self-absorbed antics have succeeded in attracting outsized attention. Portlandia and The Daily Show have loudly poked fun at hipsters' reverence for vinegar and local quince, and a recent New York Times feature derisively quoted an artisan groupie who "doesn't care" whether Koreans actually eat tacos, so long as the kimchi-salsa maker has a good story to share.
Yet while the noun "artisan" is ripe for parody, the adjective has somehow managed to acquire commercial cachet. Domino's, Sargento, Tostitos, and Dunkin' Donuts have lately tagged their pizzas, shredded cheese, chips, and bagels with the label, well aware that sales of specialty food products shot up 19 percent between 2009 and 2011.
In the South and Midwest, food producers are taking full advantage of the opportunities their angst-ridden, tale-spinning brethren on the coasts have helped create. They're salvaging generations-old recipes, buying raw ingredients from farmers desperate for new income sources, and selling the results to eaters suddenly hungry for food that isn't assembled in a faceless factory overseas. "They'll buy something like ours compared to something commercial any day," Herkner says.
The notion of artisan food isn't new. When in 1842 Messrs. Hughes and Potter of New London, Connecticut, alerted People's Advocate readers to "a superior article of root beer" which they intended to deliver "fresh and pure" by cart to subscribers, or when Mr. Kimball of New York City announced in an 1831 issue of the Evening Post that he'd produced rosewater "for imparting a flavour to conserves" that was "entirely free of any artificial compound," they were appealing to their prospective customers' appetites for clean, safe, individualized food. Some of the earliest artisans' names survive on products first devised as high-quality, small-batch antidotes to perceived shabbiness in the standard food supply: Edmund McIlhenny, Jim Beam, Domingo Ghirardelli, and J.M. Smucker's products can now be found in many chain stores.
Yet "artisan" as a culinary come-on is a fairly new addition to the common lexicon. "I'm trying to remember if that was a word in 2007 when I started my business," says April McGreger, a respected pickle and preserve maker based in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Until the turn of the current decade, artisans were usually people who stitched leather bracelets or threw clay pots. But the term started to creep into food conversations via cheesemakers and bread bakers, who used the phrase on business cards and cookbooks as early as 2000. Artisan food "is made by hand using traditional methods," the San Francisco Chronicle explained in a 2009 story headlined, "What is artisanal food?"
Once in circulation, the word was flypaper for publicists and book publishers, who this year plan to release The Artisan Soda Workshop, Artisan Vegan Cheese, An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat, Artisan Pasta, and The Artisan Marshmallow, among other artisan-oriented titles. As nebulous food terms go, though, "artisan" is still not nearly as familiar as "organic" or "local." A 2011 study by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) found that 26 percent of specialty-food consumers seek out artisan products, compared to 55 percent who gravitate toward organic labels. A mere 1 percent of shoppers who don't regularly buy specialty foods say they care whether they're buying artisanal, and organizers of the Good Food Awards, a two-year-old project to recognize the nation's finest artisan foods, estimate that half of 1 percent of food purchases could be classified as artisan.
The numbers may be paltry, but NASFT's vice president Ron Tanner thinks they're promising. "The people who are really driving this are people in their 20s and 30s," Tanner says. "It's people who grew up drinking Starbucks. If you've been eating good cheese, you're not going to start eating Velveeta."
By reputation, the most rigorous artisan in the country is June Taylor, the legendary San Francisco marmalade maker who studied domestic science as a north London high-schooler in the 1960s. Jam makers rarely describe their methods without invoking Taylor's name: When they confess they're considering leaving a kitchen in a manager's care or purchasing candied orange peel, they reflexively say that "June Taylor wouldn't like it."
"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."
"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.
Brian Ellison, founder of Wisconsin's Death's Door Spirits, is often asked how he decided to work with Washington Island farmers. When he launched his company, there weren't any. "Farming had died off in the 1970s," Ellison says. "Then in 2005, I found two brothers willing to grow five acres of wheat."
According to the original business plan, Ellison would use the wheat's flour to make fancy artisan breads for bed-and-breakfasts in Door County. But he quickly realized there wasn't any money in baked goods. "Frankly, a salesman doesn't go home and say, 'I crushed it this week, let's get the good flour.'" In 2007, Ellison started distilling, and "the success was immediate." Death's Door's current annual production is 250,000 cases of vodka, gin, and whiskey, making Ellison the odd artisan who's become too big to outsource. After years of distilling in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the company this month opened Wisconsin's biggest craft distillery.
"From the beginning, my belief was we could find partners for everything," Ellison says. "It got to the point where we were growing so fast, the feeling was either we have to accept the fact that we don't get the same quality every time or build a distillery."
The growth has reconstructed Washington Island. The five-acre stand of hard red winter wheat that a pair of farming brothers first planted for Death's Door has grown to 1,200 acres of organic wheat planted across the island.
"The best way to keep people farming their land is to have them farm it," says Ellison, who pays three times the going rate for wheat, chalking up the added expense as a marketing cost. "You don't need land trusts."
"Michigan's heritage was built on building cars, and we recognized we had to rethink ourselves as a state," says Matt Birbeck. "We've climbed on board with agriculture. Culturally, we've changed to understand value-added is sexy."
Birbeck moved to Michigan from California, where he says artisans are "more focused on cosmetics. Here, we focus on ingredients. When you talk about 'artisan' in San Francisco, they're talking about craft, whereas here it's taste."
In addition to the Herkners' cherry topping, Birbeck has helped develop and market whitefish filets, cheeses, and venison sausages. Since 2004, MSU's Product Center claims it has officially launched 229 food businesses, creating 917 jobs statewide. Funded by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and Michigan State University Extension, it offers growers and home cooks a menu of services, including market research, label design, and financial planning. Last year, more than 250 entrepreneurs signed up. The center has been so successful that this week it's hosting the National Value Added Conference in Traverse City, near the orchards where the Herkners' cherries grow.
"If you are a person who has a recipe in your back pocket and $5 in your other pocket, you can come to us," Birbeck says. "I think every state has a program like this, but Michigan is really pushing it because it's an area it can do very well."
Doing well for Birbeck is measured in dollars, so he's cut deals with Kroger and Meijer to dedicate shelf space to Michigan artisans. He has little patience for the quaint and quirky. "When we can help a farmer, when we can help people who have lost their jobs, that's what I do," he says.
Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods also works with corporations: Woodford Reserve, owned by liquor giant Brown-Forman, last year hired the Louisville soy-sauce maker to develop a sorghum vinaigrette salad dressing with its bourbon. Jamie recognizes that the partnership qualifies him for sellout status in certain artisanal circles. "I want to make a lot of money," he says. "I don't think there's a problem with me remaining an artisan. When a company like Brown-Forman approaches you, it opens doors." Jamie clarifies he didn't have to sacrifice quality for the contract: "I was approached by QVC, and the guy was like, 'We'll make this in China,' and I was like, 'You could, but you can't put my name on it.' These products are my babies. We're selling a super-premium product. I embrace that."
Since Jamie doesn't grow the sorghum he uses for his salad dressings and syrups, he's not welcome at his local farmers' market. "They don't want anything to do with me. I'm like no, I'm not growing sorghum, but I buy from one guy. It's a single crop and he doesn't have time to come out here and sell."
"I'm not always over the kettle," he continues. "I'm 50 percent food artisan and 50 percent entrepreneur, maybe even 60/40. I don't grow sorghum. I don't have a spring on my property. But I make something artfully."
Although sorghum once was the region's dominant sweetener, it's now largely forgotten outside isolated pockets of the mountain South. Jamie says wedding sorghum to artisan techniques and promotional strategies has helped create new markets for sorghum farmers, who are now forming a trade group. "The sorghum farmers I buy from would never see an end product," he says, referring to the more than 75 percent of U.S. sorghum that's used for ethanol and livestock feed. "So when they saw my product at Williams-Sonoma, they took a picture with it. They saw it on a menu and brought the chef out, they were so proud of what they did. I'm very proud."
At Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, North Carolina, Mark Overbay, a veteran of the fair-trade coffee business, makes every batch of his locally sourced nut butters by hand. "I literally scoop the nuts by hand, and spoon the butter into every jar with a tablespoon," he says. A lifelong peanut-butter eater, Overbay was inspired to start Big Spoon by the ground-nut harvests he witnessed as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe in 1999. "They would shell them and roast them in big pans, or, in one case, over the hood of a car," he says. "People would bring containers or banana leaves, just whatever they had to take it back in. It was one of the most delicious things I've ever had in my life. It was a completely different food experience."
Yet it's one that Overbay believes can survive upsizing. "With a smallish nut roaster, I would increase my capacity by 1,000 percent, and then I would simply have to find a larger grinder and maybe a couple of stand mixers," he muses aloud. But he's thinking even bigger, because his passion for the exemplary flavors of great nut butter is matched by his passion for reinvigorating peanut farming in the South.
"If I want organic peanuts, the closest place I can get them is New Mexico," Overbay says. "There's nothing wrong with New Mexico, but as someone who believes in supporting North Carolina, I made the decision early on to buy North Carolina peanuts. I want to grow our business so we can be a positive market force for sustainable agriculture in the Southern peanut sector. I believe — and I don't think this is a pipe dream — there can be sustainable, organic peanut agriculture in the Southeast. I want Big Spoon to be an advocate for that."
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