Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

The Artisanal Irony: The Mass-Produced Hand-Crafted Food Dilemma 

Wednesday, Jun 27 2012
Comments

Page 3 of 5

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&H's 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 observe. "We don't mix by hand," Fintz says. "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 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. It's something you learn and craft over time." The Robot Coupe, she adds, will never process plums for her cardamom 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&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."

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.

About The Author

Hanna Raskin

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • U2 @ SAP Center in San Jose
    Last night U2 performed the first U.S. date of it’s Innocence + Experience tour at SAP Center in San Jose. All four band members were present despite recent injuries sustained by both Bono and Edge. The sold out show took audience members on a walk down memory lane as the band revisited their roots. The innovative stage and lighting used gave the arena show an intimate feel, and engaged audience members in all sections of the venue. Photographs by Sugarwolf.
  • Bay to Breakers 2015 - NSFW
    The 103rd annual Bay to Breakers 12K race was packed on Sunday despite the cold weather. With a starting point a few blocks from The Embarcadero, people dressed as bananas, Elvis and everything in between ran west through the city and finished at the Great Highway where breakers crash onto Ocean Beach.

    Photographs by Christopher Victorio.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed