The New Adventures of Generation F: Handmade Food
A couple of hours after setting foot in Brooklyn for the first time, I find the heart of the action. It's 7 p.m. on a hot summer weeknight, and I'm hanging with a group of fashionable young people, all good-looking and under 30, who favor the uptown stylish look (pressed shirts, nice shoes) or that of the ubiquitous Brooklyn hipster (beard, plaid accents). They're socializing, having a laugh, and I'm hanging with them. We are not, though, in the latest hot restaurant and bar, nor are we listening to a painfully obscure band. No, we're standing in the commercial kitchen attached to a store called The Brooklyn Kitchen, canning pickles.
That's right: hipster picklers. Because whatever you may have read about being on the inside track of cool these days, for these New Yorkers, it's all about brining vegetables.
As the evening—which is basically a pickle seminar—unfolds, considerable ground is covered by affable expert Bob McClure, 32, co-owner of Detroit-based McClure's Pickles and a poster boy for a phenomenon sweeping North America: artisanal food production.
"Now for relishes," asks one pickle pilgrim, who looks like he might be a securities analyst when not brining, "do you use finished pickles or chop up the cucumbers fresh?"
Fresh, apparently. There is much head-nodding and brow-furrowing.
"Artisinal" is the big word in food these days. It attaches to a staggering range of producers, from cheesemakers to chocolate crafters, bakers, condiment producers, sausage curers, microdistillers, and quite a few more picklers than I would have thought the economy could support. The essence of the ethic—more than an idea, it's an ideal—is independent ownership, hand-crafted food, small-scale (often urban) production, fealty to real or imagined culinary heritage and, often, savvy packaging, canny marketing, social-media outreach and, sometimes, wacky experimentation with flavors (hot-chile-pepper ice cream from Ohio, for example, or jerk-flavored cheese from Seattle). Genuine handmade artisanal food production is a tiny part of the 60 billion dollar "specialty" food industry, but the artisanal movement thrills those who dream of beating back the industrialization of food. It is catnip to foodies, trend-sniffers, and those who survey and supply them: Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma both being well aboard the artisanal train by now, along with the Food Network and especially its new expansion effort, the Cooking Channel. At its heart is the conviction that a young country can both recover and invent the sort of real-food heritage that the Old World—whether Europe or Asia—built its cuisines upon. A tall order, but one the indie-food generation is excited to tackle.
Four years ago, Bob McClure was an actor in New York City, working temp jobs on the side. One jar of pickles made from his great-grandmother's recipe, brought to a dinner party, changed his story arc. McClure's Pickles now produces 800 to 900 jars a day out of a small Detroit facility run by Bob's doctoral-candidate brother Joe, and where both their mother and grocery-industry-veteran father are now employed. That's 800 to 900 quart jars, retailing for 8 to 12 dollars each, of what Brooklyn's Bedford Cheese Shop proprietor Charlotte Kamin describes as by far the most popular pickles they sell.[pagebreak]
It's easy to taste why: The pickles are a crisp and tangy-fresh delight, and McClure's pickle-juice-infused Bloody Mary mix is bloody good (it won a Cooking Light first-annual artisanal Taste Test Award last month). Although the factory is where the family is—ravaged Detroit—McClure does new-product development in his Brooklyn "laboratory" and epitomizes the Big Apple small-food movement, selling his product locally in boutique food stores, larger stores such as Whole Foods, and at a pair of curated food-and-collectibles markets called Brooklyn Flea.
Four new picklers have popped up in Brooklyn alone in the past few years, along with chocolatiers, distillers, bakers, and meat-curers. "There are a lot of people out there trying to get in on this food scene," says Eric Demby, cofounder of Brooklyn Flea. Demby tells me he sorts through thousands of e-mail applications for spots in his two markets, only a fraction of which he can accommodate. The most common applicant is a small jewelrymaker. Second most common is someone making artisanal baked goods.
The bottom line, Demby says: "If you are young and have some business savvy, then you're starting a food business right about now."
I tasted artisinal foods and met their makers in two areas, New York and the Seattle-Vancouver corridor in the Pacific Northwest, which is my home (Portland's thriving food scene will be described in an upcoming issue.)
In New York it was mostly Brooklyn, a borough of 2.5 million people where immigrant foodmakers have long plied their trade—fresh mozzarella in the "pork stores," kielbasa in the Polski shops—until this new-generation scene really started heating up a few years ago.
In the west—where both the coffee and microbrew beer crazes originated, and where Alice Waters still presides as Queen of the Locavores—there is much ferment as well: There are 23 licensed craft distilleries in Washington State alone, and 20 more area applications are pending. There's been a microburst of salami makers out there, as in the east. Foraging, smoking, and small-scale urban gardening are booming. And then there are the indie choco-artisans—west, east, and everywhere in between—who have shaped an improbable alternative national cacao economy in less than five years. Every American city, small and large, has gotten at least a taste of the artisan movement.
Which is good news for anyone who loves good food. I like having new local cheese, preserves, and wine options from the region just around my own city—Vancouver—every year, and I like that every other month another chef seems to decide that he simply must make his own charcuterie. More Americans are awake to the pleasures of the local and the handcrafted, and seem willing, even in lousy times, to pay more—which is absolutely crucial to the artisanal economy, because none of this small-scale foodmaking comes cheap, or easy.
"It's the hardest work I've ever done," says 30-year-old Shamus Jones of Brooklyn Brine, who used to be a chef, not exactly a slacker's job. His superb asparagus with lavender, along with his carrots with chipotle and garlic, are flying off the shelves. He's working around the clock. He's had a relationship go south and troubles with a business partner. He shows me the burns across his forearms from handling the hot brine pots.[pagebreak]
Yet he's absolutely committed. "I'm from here and I want this company to become a New York institution."
Handmade food is hard work. Brad Sinko, the head cheesemaker at Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Seattle (whose flagship cheddar won an artisanal award from Cooking Light last month), is up before dawn to stir vats of fresh milk by hand. The Mast brothers of Brooklyn, Rick and Michael, roast cacao beans themselves after traveling to bean-growing countries to meet the farmers who grow them. And Mast Brothers is, after all, a tiny business.
It's very time-consuming," admits 37-year-old Robert Belcham of Vancouver tells me, concerning his much-loved Vancouver salami and cured ham business, The Cure, which he runs out of his restaurant, Campagnolo. Curing meat the old-fashioned way also has old-fashioned risks that your average foodie may not think about. "Making charcuterie can also be quite dangerous," Belcham reminds me. Painstaking care is needed. "You have to follow the time-honored traditions and use the right formulas or you could end up hurting people." By hurting, of course, he means poisoning.
What keeps these people going? What inspires them? A taste-bud epiphany, usually, plus, in the newer generation, the addition of a thick dollop of youthful idealism.
People who enter the artisanal game later in life tend to have had an aha! moment on the heels of an established career. Wade Bennett, a 54-year-old apple and pear farmer in Enumclaw, Washington, discovered Calvados (French apple brandy) and suddenly began to see his trees in a whole new way. His company, Rockridge Cidery, now makes a range of apple- and fruit-based wines and spirits. Dennis Robertson, the 53-year-old founder of Soft Tail Spirits, in the town of Woodinville, Washington, supplied stone to the construction trade until he discovered grappa while on a business trip to Italy and began to dream of a second act. In 2008 he decided to start a grapparia, and after only a year, his grappa, made from Yakima Valley sangiovese grapes, won a silver medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
These are stories of people who had a mid-life awakening and the means and drive to redirect their lives.
Among these younger artisans, I heard epiphany stories, too, but there was evidence of something else there, a deep yearning—and a lot more tattoos. When Belcham arduously tracked down a source of heritage-breed pigs on Vancouver Island and started making salami and cured hams, the objective was partly to get a better product than you can buy at the average supermarket. But it was more about reconnecting with lost virtues of self-sufficiency and labor.
"I wanted to make things the way my grandfather and my great-grandparents had done," he tells me, speaking of his pioneering ancestors who had made similar products with pigs from the interior of British Columbia, where they'd lived. "People living in cities have lost those traditions over the years."
The fabric of "the small, the local, and the beautiful," as Eagle Street Rooftop Farm's Web site describes the emerging ecosystem of Brooklyn restaurants, food growers, and artisans, is complex. Eagle Street takes compost from Brooklyn Brine. Its produce goes to a few local-food restaurants. It hosts "lecture series" featuring people like "locavore heroine Leda Meredith." One of the farm's cofounders, Annie Novak, came to artisanal city farming via a family tragedy. Her father was killed in an auto accident in Chicago five years ago. "I started vegetable gardening and began to realize the benefits of working on something very immediate, with your hands, but understanding that it has a long-term focus."[pagebreak]
Brad Estabrooke, 31, realized that something more than a career had gone astray around the time he lost his job on the bond-trading desk at Deutsche Bank (there are more than a few ex-finance people in the artisan game now). It might not be the first thing that would pop into your mind, but Estabrooke decided he was going to make something of his life by making gin. "What was missing was the fact that I wasn't actually producing anything. I wanted to make something. I wanted to work all day and end up with something delicious at the end of it."
Estabrooke's new gin, named with the Dutch spelling of the place it's made—Breuckelen—is superb, flavored with five botanicals. There is, naturally, an artisanal tonic water to go with it, too—Q Tonic, made with Peruvian bark.
A skeptic might ask how much soul-searching a good gin and tonic requires. A can of Schweppes perhaps has more sugar than you need, and Bombay Sapphire is owned by Bacardi, which sells about 5 billion dollars worth of booze a year, but I've never poured the two of them into a glass together with ice and lime and had anything less than a satisfactory experience. Still, over at Q Tonic, founder Jordan Silbert recalls that his eureka moment pivoted around a glance at commercial tonic and feeling what he described as "aesthetic retching."
It's emotional, being an artisan, clearly. Matthew Tilden, founder of SCRATCH-bread, which is featured weekly at the Brooklyn Flea, waxes new-age-y: "Bread could be one of the world's most naturally modest superhuman powers," he says. "Locally defined, handmade bread, enough for and made in communities all over the globe. It could potentially change our entire beings."
Your third-generation challah baker in Williamsburg might snicker at this, and it might amuse the ancient Berkeley bread artisans who founded Acme, way back in 1983. But the less giddy artisans make it clear: Big ideas are in play.
"The attraction to craft food is the result of the public wanting authenticity in identity and tradition," Rick Mast of Mast Brothers Chocolate tells me, stroking his long red beard and staring me straight in the eyes. "This is not a trend-art project. Our goal is to reinvent the family-owned craft business. And we'll consider ourselves successful when we pass this business on to another generation."
Or as Kurt Dammeier, founder and co-owner of Beecher's Handmade Cheese, tells me: "Our mission statement is to change the way people eat."
Does a sip of Rockridge raspberry wine or a slice of SCRATCHbread have the power to reconnect us to lost values? Can a bottle of corn whiskey by Kings County Distillery or a slice of Flagship cheddar from Beecher's transform the culture?
Generation F will try.[pagebreak]
In the meantime, they're at least eating better than most of us did in our 20s or early 30s. When I talk to Daniel Sklaar, the 30-year-old founder of Fine & Raw Chocolate in Brooklyn (and a former financial analyst), he tells me that dinner parties have gone potluck in his social scene these days. Before each meal there's a flurry of Facebook activity as people compare notes on what they're bringing. That is, what they're making with their own hands and bringing to the table. "People want authentic food," Sklaar says. "Food that connects them to other people. They want a communal experience."
May these artisans thrive; may their numbers grow. We'll all eat better for it. Some foodmakers, of course, will learn that idealism is not the same thing as expertise or business sense. As Dammeier, in the business for seven years, says, a lot of "wash-out" will happen. "It's not good enough just to make something yourself. It has to have the quality and the consistency." And the market, and the business plan. One goat-cheesemaker described to me how many farms fold at the critical moment when the goats multiply to the point that you have a business-sized, not a hobby-sized, herd on your hands. At that point, some dreamers run away, bleating.
And small doesn't always mean tasty, either. Handmade chocolate turned out to be gritty chocolate on several occasions, and one taste left a burn in the back of my throat like I'd just dry-chewed an aspirin. Not all indie pickles are created equal. Some I tried were murky-tasting and over-flavored. I brought home a handmade cookie that my kid wouldn't finish, and ate an artisanal sourdough baguette that could have broken a tooth.
There's also the matter of price. Mast Brothers chocolates, purchased online, including shipping, will cost you $92 for 10 (2.5-ounce) craft bars, which works out to about $60 a pound. Compare that to as little as $8 per pound for Dove chocolate from Amazon.com. Pickled beets can be $2 in a supermarket, $8 or $10 from an artisan. Add a big carbon footprint if you buy artisanal foods by Web and Fedex.
But if this were an investment market, I'd be bullish about continued growth. Artisans, like chefs, drive taste in a nation that simply gets more hungry for fine food and new (read old, authentic) flavors. Expect big brands to explore ways to make themselves seem more artisanal, like the McDonald's ad campaign that stresses that every French fry in fact comes from a potato (grown in the ground!). In 2009, Starbucks opened an unbranded, artisan-ish coffeeshop in Seattle called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.
Meanwhile, the successful artisans will continue to push the definition of authenticity. Bob McClure has considered moving some of his booming pickle operations to a 200-acre farm in Latvia, where his wife inherited some land. Going back to the old country: That's keeping it real! The Mast brothers are so keen to reduce their carbon footprint that they plan to take part of their early 20th-century production practices back into the 19th century—and bring in their cacao beans from the Dominican Republic by sailing vessel.
8 A.M., Pike Place Market, Seattle. I watch as Brad Sinko makes cheese, mesmerized as he stirs the milk, checks temperatures and gauges, then trots over to a second vat where he has added jerk spices to small curds (yes, jerk spices, for a tasty cheese cleverly called No Woman), getting ready to pack the curds into the presses. The cheesemaking operation is surrounded on three sides by wide glass windows, and crowds of people look in, some shading their eyes for a better view, a couple of kids with their noses pressed right to the glass. How curious they all look. How engaged. How interested. They remind me of Bob McClure's pickle pilgrims.
"It's a show!" Sinko quips, noticing me noticing the crowds, which of course he hardly does anymore because they are here almost every day.
It's a show about cheesemaking, but also about how curiosity can shape our understanding of real food and the appetite for it.
Later I click around the McClure's pickle Web site, which gives off a fine tang of artisanal character, looking like woodblock on craft paper, containing charming bios of family workers, and holding forth, I notice when I click the "buy" box, a gorgeous bit of slow-food irony in this Web-fast world: You can find McClure's in 0.32 of a second on Google, but if you want to order a mixed-case online (and they only sell by the case), keep in mind that "It will take approximately one business month from order date to get your product."
That's because tiny McClure's is busy shipping to a growing list of retail shops across the country. It's no Heinz, but it's getting a little less local all the time.