The Artisan Food Movement Digs for Gold
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 former President Eisenhower invited their father to join a delegation of farme toms rs 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. The elder Herkners believed they could sell even more topping, but were stumped by scaling. 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. “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. 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 shave 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. “When I got here, seven years ago, it was like value added, ha, ha,” Birbeck says, using the industry term for a farm product that’s taken a transformational trip through a kitchen. “Now we’re on a roll. It’s suddenly taken off.”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. “By promoting the cherry, we’re keeping the cherry in your face,” she says. “We feel we’re promoting the cherry farms here.”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 expos 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. 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. 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. When in 1842 Messrs. Hughes and Potter of New London, Conn., 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. 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 the 55 percent who gravitate toward organic labels. “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.”Although older consumers may not want to spend an extra dollar or two on handmade salsa, Tanner says “artisan” evokes overwhelmingly positive associations from eaters of all ages, which helps explain why major food companies are increasingly using the word “artisan” as a synonym for “tasty.” Domino’s Chris Brandon says the pizza maker last year branded its new line of thin crusted rectangular pies as “artisan” in a “tongue in cheek way,” but makes clear the company’s rationale wasn’t as flimsy as the transparently fake Sicilian backdrops used to advertise its $7.99 pizzas. “[We’re] getting across how special these pizzas are,” he says. “We are serious about the quality of these pizzas.”Dunkin’ Donuts advanced a similar argument this spring when it launched its artisan bagels, a collection that includes a sun dried tomato bagel smeared with reduced fat spinach and artichoke cream cheese. According to its TV commercials, artisan is “Latin for really, really good.”Unamused, Marc Fintz of Davidovich Bakery in Queens filed a complaint this spring with the Federal Trade Commission, which currently defines “artisan” only in relation to American Indian art and has a policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations. “Artisan isn’t an adjective, it’s an action verb,” Fintz says. “From our perspective, artisan means you adhere, as much as possible, to traditional methods of the origins of your product. Dunkin’ Donuts has taken a position that’s immoral, deceitful, and wrong.”Fintz’s understanding of artisanship hinges largely on scale and speed. If manufacturing equipment is moving faster than a human being can comprehend or control, the end product can’t be called artisan. He cites Wonder Bread as the ultimate not artisan baked good. “If you took a look at every slice, it’s the same,” he says. “Let’s understand what it is: It’s a chemical product, it’s a commercial product.”Fintz says bakers across the country have thanked him for representing their interests, but the staunchest artisans might wonder if his outrage amounts to the pot calling the bagel kettle black. Davidovich Bakery is very much a commercial operation, turning out 25,000 bagels a day. As the wholesaler picks up more of failed bagel giant H former accounts, it plans to increase production to 40,000 a day. While Davidovich uses hand rolling techniques that wouldn’t fly at a Hostess factory, it also doesn’t conform to the technological restrictions that some artisans devoutly observe. “We use machinery for mixing,” Fintz says. “We don’t mix by hand. We use ovens. We’re not firing bagels over an open fire, obviously.”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. “I’ve just been to the city to pick up letterpress labels,” Taylor says. “It’s a key concern, paying a lot of attention to aesthetics of food and presentation.”McGreger is slightly more flexible on matters of slicing; she’s installed a Robot Coupe in her kitchen so she can efficiently chop cabbage for her Farmer’s Daughter krauts. But she interprets “artisan” much as Taylor does. “I’m judging and tasting, using all of my senses every day,” McGreger says. “I’m using a lot of experience and intuition. I’m not just using a probe. It’s a lot more human than that. It’s something you learn and craft over time.” The Robot Coupe, she adds, will never process plums for her cardamon jam or figs for her preserves. “We never run fruit through it,” she says firmly. “Those shortcuts lead to a degradation of quality. Our goal is that every batch is the best batch we ever made.”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.”Taylor charges $14 for an 8 ounce jar of marmalade, conserves, or fruit butter. She’s threatened to title her memoirs A Jar of Jam in honor of the countless exchanges at the Ferry Plaza farmers market and, perhaps less frequently, in her Berkeley shop that have begun with a customer exclaiming “Fourteen dollars? For a jar of jam?””People don’t necessarily want to put $8 jelly on their kids’ PB 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.”The economics of artisan food are more worrisome to Dan Rosenberg, owner of Real Pickles in western Massachusetts. Rosenberg and his wife Addie started toms pickling 11 years ago. “I wanted to help bring traditional pickles back into the American diet,” he explains. “When I started the business, I was a big believer in small business. My idea was ‘I’m just going to grow this until I can make a decent living.’ We’ve doubled from that, and we still need to grow a little bit more.”On average, Real Pickles daily produces 400 jars of pickles and sauerkraut in its 12,000 square foot kitchen. Rosenberg puts far less emphasis on the laying on of hands that some artisans espouse: Cases of beet kvass and ginger carrots routinely get made without his help. “Very fancy food has its place, but my personal incentive is for artisans to bring good food to everyone. It’s really important for us to keep affordability in mind.”That principle nearly doomed one of Rosenberg’s favorite pickled products. Dilly beans which had a brief fling with fashionability in the early 1960s, when Manhattan cocktail hour hostesses discovered they made fine martini garnishes serve as a garden surplus solution across the country, but are especially popular in New England. The recipe for dillies is so simple that it’s often taught in introductory canning classes, but the green beans were a sticking point for the Rosenbergs: The organic farmers around Greenfield, Mass., hand picked their string beans, driving up the bushel price. When Rosenberg did the math, he realized he’d have to sell his dilly beans for $12 a jar.”There are definitely some people who would pay for them, but it didn’t feel right to us,” Rosenberg says. “Other businesses might make that choice. For us, it would not be a match.”The Rosenbergs recently hooked up with a nearby organic farm that mechanically harvests its beans, allowing Real Pickles to offer organic dillies fermented with Northeast grown garlic and dill for $6. But the beans are just one chapter in an epic treatise on quality and social responsibility: Food artisans are constantly negotiating ways to source ingredients that stay true to their aesthetic and moral beliefs. As they finalize their recipes, they face the same decisions that confront ethical shoppers at the supermarket: organic or local? Should they buy the jalapeos harvested by formerly homeless veterans, or choose the most delicious peppers, regardless of who benefits from their sale?”In our world, quality and integrity are inherently linked to each other,” says Deb Music of Seattle’s Theo Chocolate, the nation’s first organic and free trade chocolate factory. Theo’s image as a global good guy is so ingrained that Ben Affleck partnered with the company to promote economic development in the eastern Congo, while the Jane Goodall Institute and World Bicycle Relief both have branded Theo’s dark chocolate bars.”For us, there’s no luxury in a product that’s damaging to the environment,” Music says. “It’s even a little more nuanced: I think every product needs to be produced in a way that’s beneficial to someone or something.” She isn’t ready to require every small scale food producer to work toward social justice, though. “Someone who wants to create something beautiful, that’s a noble effort,” she says. 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.”We believe in cap toms turing the bounty of the peak growing season and bringing it to folks who might not have the knowledge to preserve food themselves,” announces the website for Suddenly Sauer, a tiny pickling operation that leads fermentation workshops for inner city cooks. “Tapping into urban farming projects in Detroit, Suddenly Sauer uses chemical free produce grown by farmers we know and trust.”In their zeal to offer homespun alternatives to processed food, a few toms artisans have made decisions seemingly at odds with their stated goals of making everything better for Joe Q. Eater. Following the example set by bootstrap farms and restaurants, pickle makers and distillers such as Seattle’s Firefly Kitchen and Woodinville Whiskey 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.”When I started this, I just started playing around,” says Anton Nocito, who makes lovage and sarsaparilla soda syrups in Brooklyn. Martha Stewart Weddings last year suggested brides tie tags to P Soda Co. bottles and present them as guest favors. “It was literally an illegal market in the basement of a church,” Nocito remembers. “A lot of people there were baking cakes, but they brought them and sold them. I started thinking, I need to research how I can do this properly. I maybe think it’s not so cool to be producing out of your apartment that has a cat hanging around. There’s a lot of people who don’t follow the rules. It’s probably a lot of times they don’t know better. It’s growing so rapidly that a lot of the information that should be out there isn’t getting out there quickly enough.”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 soon to roll out the Good Food Guild, an umbrella organization for the hundreds of unaffiliated artisans who yearly enter the awards competition in the hope of scoring a win and a congratulatory kiss on the cheek from award ceremony presenter Alice Waters, the chef/owner of Chez Panisse and an acknow