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The economics of artisan food are more worrisome to Dan Rosenberg, owner of Real Pickles in western Massachusetts. Rosenberg and his wife, Addie, started pickling 11 years ago. "I wanted to help bring traditional pickles back into the American diet," he explains. "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 produces 400 jars of pickles and sauerkraut in its 12,000-square-foot kitchen every day. 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. "Addie and I are hardly ever in the kitchen at this point, and I would say we're still artisans," he says.
An active participant in the Occupy movement, Rosenberg believes his presence is secondary to his philosophy. "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: 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.
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. 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 jalapeños harvested by formerly homeless veterans, or choose the most delicious peppers, regardless of who benefits from their sale?
In their zeal to offer homespun alternatives to processed food, a few artisans have made decisions seemingly at odds with their stated goal of making everything better for Joe 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. 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, N.Y. Martha Stewart Weddings last year suggested brides tie tags to P&H Soda Co. bottles and present them as guest favors. "It was literally an illegal market in the basement of a church," Nocito remembers. "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."
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 presenter Alice Waters, the chef and owner of Chez Panisse and an acknowledged figurehead of the sustainable-food movement.
"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. 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."