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Although the appellations of “artisan” and “craft” are not conventionally applied to food or food production, the frequency with which food producers and retailers, marketers and the media, have appropriated the term suggest that it is not only a fitting designation but that it deserves theoretical attention.[i] One cannot enter a grocery store, walk the aisle of a farmer’s market, or turn the pages of a glossy food magazine without encountering these terms in abundance and the renaissance of artisan food production is thoroughly international in scope. In Italy, for instance, prodotti artigianale have proliferated in the last decade. In Canada, and in Quebec especially, artisan products also have made a spectacular resurgence. Whether in the form of artisan cheese made from the unpasteurized milk of heritage dairy breeds, or small-batch craft beer brewed from local grains, or traditional specialties like maple syrup and foie gras, markets from Montreal to Charlevoix offer a veritable bounty of artisan, hand-crafted items. In the United States, the nascent revival of artisan production and artisan products stands out in especially sharp relief.

While there are significant economic advantages to be had from marketing foods as artisanal or craft, and increasing cooptation by large corporations may effectively dilute the meaning to little more than what one pop-media article calls “Hand Crafted Hype,” I argue that artisan food production is far from mere rhetoric.[ii] My interests touch on what makes artisanal food “artisanal” but focus on what is it about the artisanal mode of production that makes it attractive to the individuals who choose to pursue it.

This article presents evidence acquired through a multi-sited ethnographic investigation of craft food production across the United States. Research consisted of conducting semi-structured interviews and participant observation with nearly 75 food artisans in the course extensive fieldwork from May through August 2013. Interactions with owner-operators variably included tour-and-tastings, participation in daily work, and conversations in the course of labour and leisure—participation provided insight into the exigencies and routines of daily living; informal interviews lent an understanding of the rewards and tensions experienced therein.

This essay juxtaposes three of these artisanal food producers—a butcher, vintner, and cider-maker. Their ethnographic depiction offers a revealing window into the moral frameworks that structure and give meaning to the quotidian aspects of artisan lives and livelihoods. Placing them side-by-side allows for a degree of comparison and contrast, revealing that food-producing craftsmen find inspiration and reward in parallel but also divergent ways. Moreover, it begins to craft a bricolage of individual voices and life histories, which combine to add colour to the emerging cultural landscape of American artisanship.

The individuals featured in this essay are members of a class that I call “liberal artisans.” They have voluntarily chosen to forego conventional careers and standard professional trajectories in favour of craft “callings.”[iii] In contemporary society, where individuals are increasingly “forced to negotiate lifestyle choices among a diversity of options,” American’s must choose between a veritable panoply of conventional routes but also have the opportunity to freely reject more established behaviours, occupations, and worldviews, in favour of alternatives.[iv] It is the attractiveness and the moral valence of a particular unconventional professional sphere, artisan food production that this essay seeks to better understand.[v].

While claims abound that the attendant consequences of modernization—globalization, technological advancement, mass communication—homogenize the motivations and mores of (relatively) distinct cultures into what anthropologist Michael Herzfeld terms a “global hierarchy of value,” American artisans propose this blanket generalization to be incomplete. Interpreting the motivations of craft food production suggests that the blanket is patchwork at best; we learn that the meaning and constitution of the “good life” can be realized in myriad ways and, more narrowly, to appreciate that sentimental factors buttress socio-economic behaviour as much as the predominant logic of neoliberal rationalization.

Bear and Alpenfire Cider

The “good life” as framed by craft food producers is constituted in various ways. For Bear Bishop of Aplenfire Cider it consists of manually-engaged and creative labour that respects the natural environment. A devotee of the organic movement since boyhood and a graduate of progressive, environmentally-focused, Evergreen State College, Bear spent a thirty year career as a firefighter leading elite teams into burning forests and national parks. Needing to settle into something less physically demanding as he aged, on a rural homestead on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Bear now makes the only organic hard cider “from here clear to Indiana.” Not one to shy away from physical labour (or from boasting), he and his wife Nancy built their home, orchard and processing facility from the ground up. “We cleared the land. We shaped it. We milled all the timber off the land. We put up a yurt and started building everything. It took 18 months but I built the log cabin. There was not much soil, some of the worst soil I’ve ever seen really, but we did the pioneer thing. Later, we planted 900 plus trees on this trellis system that I invented.”[vi] For Bear, who goes by the pseudonym because he has always felt more at home “in the wild” than amongst the civilized, the pioneering spirit reflects not only a distaste for more conventional career paths but belief in a human ecological coexistence with the natural world. His cidery is a logical extension of his world view.

While we sipped cider in his aging room Bear reflected on the way contemporary American culture privileges certain skills at the expense of others. Our educational system awards and nurtures mental acumen and increasingly deflates the value, both social and economic, of learning the various manual arts.[vii] He lamented,

The workforce has lost their ambition to work and they have no skills. They’re all deskilled people. It’s kind of embarrassing because most of the world is skilled. Even if it is making shoes. I appreciate everything done that way. Most people in America their nose goes up. But I’m like, what skills do you have. Ugh… Shopping. I think it kind of does a disservice to us in that way. There needs to be a teaching service to get us back on the land.

Bear’s prescription for what he sees as pervasive deskilling at the societal level is to reinstitute a “folk-tech” education.[viii] Anthropologist Trevor Marchand’s research supports Bear’s assertion arguing in the English context that, “the credibility and status of craft apprenticeship and vocational learning need to be raised on par with formal education in order to become viable, more attractive routes toward satisfying work and personal development.”[vix] Whether the work-based educational model is in reality a viable apparatus for professional and social development or not, Bear’s comments, like Marchand’s, suggest that manual and mental engagement need not be divorced from one another. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, philosopher-turned-mechanic Matthew Crawford makes the polemical argument that man’s interaction with the world through his hands illuminates a vital component of our humanity, providing a manually-rooted agency that encourages human flourishing.[x] Bear as well as other food-producing craftsmen propose that there is real value to manual and material engagement in a society that increasingly slips into disembodied surreality. Indeed, artisan production is decidedly more hands-on than most other professional endeavours in a post-industrial society. Akin to their pre-modern forbearers, craftsmen are daily in direct contact with tangible materials and employ their senses and their skill in the production of hand-crafted items.[xi] Although “hand-crafted” is always a relative term, the manual mode of production can be elaborated into a discussion of how engagement with our material world might matter to those who choose to work this way. The handmade idiom suggests the reintegration of muscles into our material worlds and, for craftsmen, serves as a vehicle towards achieving higher-quality products and higher-quality production.

Discussing the importance of sensory-engaged production and the difficulties of harvesting and processing without the use of artificial additives Bear comments, “We could lose our product like that [because we don’t use sulfites]! [In using them] you’re taking care of your uncleanliness. You are not using your eyes, ears, hands, and coordination to keep tabs on the product you’re bringing in. We wash [the apples] like four times. The sorting table is our first line of defense. Going through each and every apple by hand. Everyone is really tired….but it’s important to bring your senses back in.” Organic cider production relies on traditional forms of knowledge, subjective sensibilities rather than abstract accounting, in order to consistently ensure a good beverage in terms of both taste and health. As Bear reminded me repeatedly, conventional production introduces over forty chemicals in the cultivation of apple orchards and adds still more in processing them into cider. Bear’s method, although requiring a good deal more human energy (“everyone is really tired”), does the same without synthetic chemicals of any kind. In doing so Bear proposes that healthy (and by extension hands-on) production promotes healthy producers.

This is not to say that Bear does not employ modern technology. His press is a shiny new model imported from Belgium (because, he says, they don’t make them as well here). His fermentation vat is a converted brewing apparatus. Most noteworthy however is his organic pest control system. Rather than using what he calls “biocides” (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc), Bear employs prescribed fire from the mouth of a repurposed flame-throwing device. Multiple times a week, Bear side-saddles his small tractor and goes down row after row “taking out the grasses” and soil pathogens. The radiant heat ascends upward simultaneously killing any unwanted bugs and powdery mildew that may have settled on the plant itself. Bear recalls,

I came home one year and just said, ‘I’m going native on this.’ I don’t like organic sprays, I don’t like sprays at all. We’re allowed to use them but I don’t like the whole idea. I don’t like jumping in my suit and pretending. It says it is okay, then you look at the label, and it says Dupont and you’re like ‘what is this.’ I switched off sprays and went full-on flame. In firefighting we use flame to protect our national forest. An orchard is small comparatively. With chemicals they’re burning the weeds. I’m doing it in the original fashion…using the elements. And I’ll admit, I get kind of bored. I haven’t been a firefighter for a decade. I’ll get a little grass fire running and I’ll just watch it.

Bringing to his cider production knowledge garnered from native Americans, techniques harnessed in his life-long career as a firefighter to which he identifies strongly still today, and dispositions towards environmental responsibility, Bear engages his manual activity in the pursuit of a profound moral code. His production of organic cider is a material manifestation of a belief in combining the hands and the heart to do good works. His motivations include, but also transcend, the making of delicious cider; he is at the same time crafting himself as a “good” producer.

Heather Paxson shows that producers of artisanal cheese see their task as a negotiation of art and science.[xii] While it is clear that science remains an important component of cider making as well, using refractometers to measure brix counts, etc, Bear’s preference to see his occupation as an art form reveals the way he embeds it into the artistic identity he has spent his whole life forming.

We’ve been artists all our lives. The reason we’ve been able to pull organic off is because we believe in the art. And the ecology before we believe in the critical chemical physics. We’re still learning that and we’ll be learning that all our lives. If we would have gotten that early on it probably would be a lot easier, but we’re going to use art as long as we can. This doesn’t look scientific… it looks artistic! Not so much artisan. We’re not quite into that artisan thing because we’re old school. We use much more of our ecological principles in this. There are so many people who aren’t organic but are artisan. And, I don’t want to break that, so we’ll call ourselves artists because that’s what we’ve always been. We don’t have a lot of training. We just did it. Apples now are our medium. Before it building, and Nancy has her canvas, and I was a shipwright and firefighter. All these things. It just came naturally.

Whether the medium be canvas or the national forest, building boats or making cider, Bear inscribes his occupations with his own artistic identity. In doing so, like Mauss’ gift, he shows that material objects bear with them the personality of their maker. Even after being exchanged they carry certain inalienable properties with them.[xiii] A piece of Bear is packaged in every bottle Alpenfire Cider.

For all the rewards and moral/creative affordances of cider production there are as many tensions that Bear must struggle with on a near daily basis. First and foremost are the regulations imposed by the organic certification board. Since this is the first organic cidery in Washington, the State keeps its leash short inspecting frequently and requiring significant documentation. Just last year, Washington State temporarily shut down Bear’s small (and award-winning) organic vinegar production for not possessing proper certification. Bear notes, “[a cider] processor has to meet requirements that nobody has really comprehended… oh my god, we have to go through so much stuff. The hoops are so high. That’s why so few people are doing it.” Another setback has been the corporate lawsuit filed over the cidery’s former name, “Wildfire.” “It was sad to lose my wildfire” he says, “but you have to do what you have to. We’re just getting our stuff together after two and a half years.” With his firefighting background and unique production techniques, Bear identified strongly with the name and suggests it was especially hard to let go. Finally, the precarious nature of artisan economics are also a constant concern. “It’s hard to make a profit. This year we did receive a value-added grant… It’s the first break we’ve ever gotten. Most of it will go into this [the maintenance of the processing facility] and hiring, which we’ve never had the money to do. We’ve done it all [ourselves]. I should have stayed a firefighter, it would have been easier.” He continued later, “but it’s not about getting paid, like firefighting it’s about the love of the land.” Bear’s manually-engaged labour and lifestyle centered on organic cider production is subsidized by his artistic sensibilities and a code of ethics focused on environmental sustainability. They help to mitigate the many tensions inherent to artisanal production.

Barbara, David and Shinn Estate Vineyard

As Bear Bishop evidences, artisanal production, and more specifically engaged labour, is sustained by producing from within a self-erected moral scaffolding that buttresses his labour and his life. The rewards of his manner of food production (organic, hands-on, quality-driven) are manifold but perhaps the most apparent is the way it reproduces an ethic of environmental sustainability and natural health. In that mission Bear is not alone. Clear across America, on Shinn Estate Vineyard “good” is also conflated with (human and environmental) health. The husband and wife team of Barbara Shinn and David Page left a career as restaurateurs in New York City to pursue a passion for winemaking, trading in the “hum of the city for the hum of the birds.” The couple began cultivating their vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island in 1998 and reaped their first harvest five years later. Although California remains the Mecca of American winemaking, vineyards are increasingly populating the landscape of the East Coast. This is especially true on the eastern-most tip of Long Island where fertile soil combines with an ocean-tempered climate and an economy supported by urban weekend vacationers seeking the ideological pastoral and the close proximity with New York City markets.

What makes Barbara and David’s winemaking venture remarkable, however, is that they are committed entirely to organic and biodynamic principles. This means, among other things, that they never spray their vines with pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers, that they use ambient yeast for fermentation and that they do not add sulfites at any point in the winemaking process. Their vineyard backs up to a conventional potato field that sits fallow and forlorn while David and Barbara’s property teams with life. Separated by a chain-link fence and ten feet of soil, they might as well be worlds apart (and philosophically, as David says, still that would be too close.). Looking out from their back porch, the juxtaposed polarities of conventional and biodynamic agriculture, on one side death and the other vitality, reinforces metonymically David and Barbara’s belief in creating a more sustainable and holistic relationship with the natural world.

David describes their winemaking philosophy as healthy, holistic and historically validated. He notes,

We ascribe to a philosophy of living with nature in a healthy way. If you put poison on your soil or plants, you’re putting it into your bodies. It’s really about staying healthy. People ask me, “how can you farm holistically, how can you not spray herbicides, or not use chemical fertilizers,” the simplest answer to that is “how could you? Why would you?” These chemicals, poisons, have only been used for 80 years in all of agriculture. We’ve had agriculture on this planet for ten thousand years. To imagine, why now. There are scientific reasons why the world has changed because of the advent of these chemicals which will make it difficult to turn back. But if enough of us do it, we can change the world. We can help it heal.[xiv]

In articulating the moral approach he and Barbara take towards the natural world, David also suggests his belief that through conscious and collaborative action humans can rehabilitate what they have helped destroy. In David’s reckoning, fallen man can make amends through proscribed acts of agency—through good will and good works we can create a better world to live and labour. He argues that we must stop making economic decisions “as if nothing else matters.”

Biodynamic winemaking is more a moral than monetary endeavour. Barbara says, “More than anything else it has to come from the right spot (pointing to her heart), because you’re not necessarily going to sell more wine. It’s not really an effective marketing strategy at this point.” Whether or not environmentally-conscious winemaking does or does not claim a profitable market niche is arguable (the couple are after many years finally turning a small profit); what is clear is that Barbara and David have, in making biodynamic wines, perceived themselves to have been making more than just wine or money. The couple has not only produced an ethical environment in which they are proud to simultaneously live and work, they have crafted wines that they believe confirm that an environmentally sustainable winemaking paradigm is not only efficacious but able to be replicated elsewhere. Perhaps less obvious however, is whether or not it can be reproduced without the kind of capital investment Barbara and David were fortunate enough to bring with them. Economic and environmental sustainability are at times competing concerns that must be constantly weighed—pragmatism and morality counterbalancing one another.

The winemaking worldview at Shinn Estate contrasts scientific and technologically-driven viticultural practices that have come to define the American winemaking tradition. As Anthropologist Amy Trubek highlights in her seminal exploration of terroir, only a minority of American winemakers, those primarily interested in evoking a taste of place, will forgo advanced technologies for a less mechanistic, less rationalized, approach intent on nurturing nature.[xv] Barbara and David are amongst that number. Barbara speaks of the importance of intuition for making great wines, “I don’t need to prove that biodynamic methods work, the proof is in the wine. I don’t need science, whose role, as I see it, is to probe and not to prove.” David notes his own disagreement with science, “I’m not a big fan of reductive thinking. That’s where the argument is, between reductive thinkers and creative/ expansive thinkers. There’s no winning that argument. I have no interest in winning it. But we certainly have interest in showing that our way works.” In practicing a viticultural approach that expresses intuition and creativity, instead of and diametrically opposed to the latest techno-scientific paradigm, David and Barbara bring subjective knowledge back into the enological equation.

Bear Bishop suggested distaste for the term artisanship, thinking it too expansive to accurately define what it is that he and Nancy were trying to do with their organic cider. However, his comments did point to the very real fact that “artisanship” remains only loosely defined—uniquely conceived by each individual artisan. Barbara’s sense of artisanship represents her paradigm for operating within, and making meaning from, the viticultural world she cultivates. She thinks of artisanship from two perspectives, appropriately the natural and the human. The former she considers more complicated, the later simple.

[Artisanal winemaking] is about letting things become what they want to become. The more I work into biodynamic theory, the more I tune into things you can’t see, I can hear it, I can sense it, and the more I learned to let it do its own thing… There are over 100 yeast cultures on the grapes that ferment our wine. Each yeast culture, those are Shinn Estate yeast, they came from the soil that I grow, my yeast, my soil, that I let become itself because I’m not using herbicides or insecticides. That’s what Mother Nature is telling me. I just have to listen to it. I can see that now, but what million other things are happening that I still can’t see and probably never will. That to me is what artisanal is. The people answer is really easy. I have a Masters Degree in fine art, and I just couldn’t wait to get off a wall. I don’t want to make sculpture art that I hang on a wall. I didn’t say therefore I want to grow grapes, but this is the most creative thing that I’ve ever done. So that’s artisan. I’ve been an artist my whole life and this is the most creative thing I’ve done.

Barbara’s interpretation of artisanship reflects the sense of felt agency that results from working within a moral scaffolding that buttresses her productive and economic behaviour. Her creativity takes on all the more meaning “off the wall” when its serves as a medium for making moral concepts (namely, winemaking dictated by nature and wine that is healthy for the environment and those who consume it alike) a material reality.

Brandon and Farmstead Meatsmith

The production occurring on a Long Island vineyard and on an orchard in Washington state begins to point to the realization that manually-engaged, passion-driven, work is not unthinking labour. Although craft has been historically associated with the production of “unimaginative” objects of strictly “utilitarian” value it is clear that artisanship in the realm of food production is much more imaginative and mentally-engaging than these definitions would otherwise suggest.[xvi] Brandon Sheard, academic-turned-artisan butcher, proves a particularly suggestive example.

In Vashon Washington, a small island off the coast of Seattle, Sheard has run a mobile slaughter and butchery business since 2011. His business model resembles that of the pre-industrial Italian norcino—an itinerant butcher that is well trained in the craft and serves the critical role of breaking down the one or two pigs that people raised but didn’t know how to process themselves. He not only slaughters and cures small livestock using traditional techniques and recipes, he also invites members of the community to join him in order to learn how to do the same. Brandon, at first glance, appears an odd protagonist in this tale. He was well on his way to a doctorate in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature when he decided to dramatically change directions.

I was going to go on and stay in academia and teach, be an English professor basically, but I started to want to do something, to produce something. I wanted to actually have a trade. I felt like academia was a little too easy, in the sense that you didn’t have to provide anything of real value you just have to know how to play the game. Especially in English departments. You know name dropping and getting published because what you wrote is fashionable and not because it’s true. I’m just not into that. I got tired of that.[xvii]

In conversation, Brandon’s fragmentary lifestyle migration from student of pre-modern English Literature to mobile slaughter entrepreneur shows itself to be in his mind actually quite linear. He brings dispositions acquired from a prior life with him to the butchery and muses, “I sometimes find it difficult not to do the ‘alas poor Yorick’ speech with pig head held high.” In more than Shakespearian jest, his shelves are lined with medieval cookery books and his speech reflects an antiquated rhetoric of kitchen economy, butchery serving cookery, and the minimization of waste that accompanies all impoverished peasant provisioning. “I love that stuff. One of my favourite [books] was written in 1833, really not that old, by William Cobbit. He was an advocate of the labouring class in England. He wrote a book called the Cottage Economy. Instructions on how to make your own bread, have a dairy cow, make cheese, [have] a pig, make beer. He’s dead serious. You can be self-sufficient. It’s totally apropos. He teaches people how to sustain themselves, working 60 hours a week, on a half acre.” Brandon’s more traditional, almost pre-modern sensibilities towards his work are buttressed by his love of historic literature. Preferring the old over the new he concludes, “Yes, I am a devolutionist.”

After deciding not to continue his literary studies, Brandon and his wife Lauren moved to Vashon Island where he “roamed the island” in search of more hands-on work that would satisfy his desire to “produce something of real value.” Fortuitously, a small butcher shop was soon to open and he was hired to help with the meat C.S.A. He spent nearly three years there developing the charcuterie program—making pâtés, sausage, and head cheese. With a background in academia, Brandon had little prior training and little more was provided on the farm. “There was zero training” he recalls, “which was actually kind of nice because I don’t like to be told how to do anything. I was forced to figure it out, and that’s how I like to learn.” He commented later the he was glad he had no formal education in butchery, noting, “if you want to learn the unconventional way, the old school way, you’d probably have to go to Europe. Or educate yourself like I did. Learn how to cook meat first, and then learn how meat should taste, work backwards from the cooking.”

Brandon’s education resulted from his proactive, curious, attitude and what he learned, he suggests, is little more than common sense: “It so happens that the best way to get your money out of a pig is to use the head, the feet, the liver, and to make really nice pâté and sell it for 25 dollars a pound rather than throw it in the trash.” But what seems commonly sensible to Brandon, that the head-to-tail butchery model is the most economical way to process a pig, is not in our society dominated by industrial-scale food production all that common.[xviii] It competes with the logic of economies-of-scale that, in minimizing production costs and maximizing output, systematically flood the marketplace with products inexpensive and mass-produced. The conspicuous example of this production model is arguably the industrial hotdog—where pork is raised and slaughtered as inexpensively as possible and wherein everything that is not a “choice” cut of meat (and then some) is emulsified and congealed in sausage form. Brandon, however, is not interested in making the production process more efficient or his products less expensive; he is concerned with making a “really nice pâté” even it means to be economically sustainable he has to sell it for 25 dollars a pound. What’s more, pâté, as anthropologist Brad Weiss astutely points out, is “just like a hotdog, only different.”[xix] The difference lies not only in the sociological indexing of the two otherwise similar products, but I would argue, also in the desired end, which dictates their conception and execution. The economizing of Brandon’s artisanal pâté (wasting as little of the pig as possible) seeks to realize a high-quality culinary end which remains economically sustainable; the cheapness of the industrial commodity hotdog, largely, to produce food in greater volume and make a higher profit. In any case it does show that value can be realized in different ways and that alternatives to the industrial model can be, and increasingly are, economically viable modes of production.

The butcher shop, however, was unable to provide the family-centric lifestyle that Brandon increasingly sought. He recalls, “[t]hen Wallace was born, and Jean-Luc. We lived around the corner from the butcher shop, but I wanted to stop working 70-80 hours a week. I wanted to be with my family. So naturally we stared our own business. Now I have all the time in the world.” Brandon’s departure from academia and his entrance into entrepreneurship, here naturalized from what was surely an anxious decision and obscuring the significant investment of time an energy his new occupation requires, reiterates anthropologist Brian Hoey’s discussion of “non-economic lifestyle migration” in which individuals make major career changes in order to realize values that extend beyond the economic. Hoey notes, “Lifestyle migration concerns individuals and families who choose relocation as a way of redefining themselves in the reordering of work, family, and personal priorities as they seek a kind of personal moral orientation to questions of the good.”[xx] But what Brandon case exemplifies, and Hoey’s discussion overlooks, is that these migrations are often economically implicated. Far from seeking refuge in leisure as Hoey suggests, American artisans are seeking morally-attuned agency in the form of engaged work (which by extension is often entrepreneurial).

Brandon’s new lifestyle as owner of Farmstead Meatsmith realizes more than just family-centered values however. “I love doing a good job on every animal. That it’s just such a fine piece of meat is really rewarding to me. That is not standard. Butchery, to ‘butcher’ something, has negative connotations for a reason. People are sloppy, they do a terrible job, and the last thing they’re thinking about is the culinary end. That’s the whole point of doing it. I really love that.” Brandon here reiterates sociologist Richard Sennett’s definition of a craftsman as anyone committed to doing good job for its own sake.[xxi] Brandon is committed to good butchery because he understands it not only as means to a culinary end, and as a way of wasting as little of the pig as possible, but also because he is very much a perfectionist in the way he goes about his work. “There are degrees of exactitude that are infinite, how well you can do this, there is no cap on it. It's like working in a kitchen as a chef, and you’re covered in mud, blood, shit, and piss, and sweating. But you can really be subtle and do an excellent job. So we’ll take our time. We might be going til noon or 1 or 2…whatever, however long it takes it takes.”

He continues, “That’s why I don’t sell raw meat, because I know I couldn’t do it and actually like what I do. I would have to compromise in order to make it work. This way I don’t. I’m a processer and I can process perfectly! And this way I don’t have to compromise.” Brandon’s pursuit of perfection shapes the frame through which he structures and orders his relationship with work. Like the small family farms that he works with who are simply trying to feed themselves, craft butchery is for Brandon the “hard but the better way.” He is able to pursue the “infinite degrees of exactitude” without compromise, even if it means (which it often does) that he is covered in “mud, blood, piss, shit, and sweating.” Good slaughter and butchery become a means by which Brandon may seek the Greek arête, the pursuit of excellence so common in craftsmanship, and are also vehicles towards achieving an optimized culinary end.[xxii]

Butchery for Brandon is well buttressed by a moral scaffolding cemented in a foundation of what he perceives as the “good” along culinary lines. However, the classes he teaches are as important as the processing itself. He notes,

I love the classes…I think that people have been alienated from everything for so long, that anything that promises any meaning at all I think they jump on. A lot of it is practical too. A few of my customers are like that, they just want to get it. My favorite thing, I have several vegetable farmers who can’t afford to buy organic meat for their family, but they can raise it. It’s hard for them to even afford the processing, so they’ll attend, they’ll invest to do a few classes with me and we’ll be connected. So that’s really rewarding.

Brandon’s reflections on the interest of his students echo those of anthropologist Millie Creighton who argues in the Japanese context that craft vacations are a means by which participants garner valuable skills, express themselves creatively, and reinforce their sense of self-identity.[xxiii] It is important to note, however, that Brandon’s classes serve two quite distinct clientele—the impoverished rural farmer seeking a better (cheaper, healthier) way to feed his/her family and urban progressives with expendable income “who have been alienated from everything for so long” and who, Brandon suggests, “consider it a moral obligation to at least comprehend the death of an animal if they’re going to continue to eat animals for food.” While participant interest may be asymmetrical, Brandon finds reward in the belief that his workshops bridge social and economic gaps and “bring us together.” The value of artisanal food production (in this case for artisan and apprentice alike) is realized in myriad ways.

The Many Meanings of American Artisanship

The mores and motivations of Bear, Brandon, Barbara and David make it clear that artisanship in America differs in important ways from its European counterpart. While craftsmanship remains broadly defined in much the same way—“the application of skill and material based knowledge to relatively small-scale production”—the fact that it has not in the same way been implicated in a nationalist project sets it as a thing apart.[xxiv] The rich ethnographic investigations of Herzfeld[xxv], Kondo[xxvi], Leitch[xxvii], Terrio[xxviii], and Venkatesan[xxix] have persuasively shown that various forms of artisanship are elsewhere employed discursively to labour towards concepts of heritage, national identity, and tradition. As the symbolic keepers of tradition, positioned to produce not only crafts but reproduce a sense of national self (imagined or otherwise), artisan labour is in imbued with meaning and personal satisfaction. However, more often than not, political and structural factors limit this socially-marginalized mode of production in ways not of the artisan’s own choosing.[xxx] Constrained by tradition and politics alike, artisans are confined to a labour that feels like both an economic blessing and a social curse.

Rather than being tied to the “tethering post of the past”[xxxi] American artisans are empowered with a vital sense of agency to build, create, transform, and generally affect their world. The novelty of artisanal production in contemporary America, where industrialization has been so pervasive and complete, offers producers a veritable tabula rasa—a blank slate in which they are inscribing a new narrative of self and society.[xxxii] Although Heather Paxson has persuasively shown that vestigial artisan factories remain and that artisan production never fully disappeared from the American landscape, the 20th century sociological indexing of artisans as blue-collar workers partaking in a marginal economic activity has effectively obscured them from modern view.[xxxiii] Despite or perhaps because of this selective form of cultural amnesia, artisan food production presents itself as a fertile frontier beckoning to be hand-crafted by agents of social, economic, and environmental change.

The moral valence of artisan food production demonstrated by a butcher, vintner and cidermaker reinforce Heather Paxson’s depiction of the sentimental economy of artisan cheese.[xxxiv] While Paxson’s research convincingly argues that artisan cheese gains status as an object good to make in the same way that it achieves its distinction as an object good to eat, my investigations elaborate on and add complexity to this claim by showing that the variables motivating artisanal cheese production extend, alongside if not neatly parallel, to other American artisan food domains as well. Bear Bishop is blazing new trails of cider production from the end of converted flamethrower, bridging his professional identity, traditional knowledge, and modern technology in the production of artistically-conceived ciders. David Page and Barbara Shinn are letting nature dictate the direction of their wines, stewarding cultivation in a manner that does justice to the etymological origins of the word culture—to till as well as tend. Brandon Sheard is reviving the travelling itinerant butcher in an effort to encourage small scale family farms and ensure processing that sets better cookery and better taste as its aims. All of them are participants in a moral economy, believing their labour to be an instrumental vehicle for a culturally-specific sense of “good”–for revitalizing rural communities, for stewarding the environment, for preserving cultural heritage, and, not least, for producing healthier, better tasting food.[xxxv]

Although contemporary food producing artisans are crafting a sentimental economy that challenges cold neoliberal calculus, it must be emphasized that they are not opting out of capitalist, market-oriented, economies altogether. Contrary to their “back to the land” predecessors, alternative food production is more of a renegotiation of modern values than an outright retreat into the mythic agrarian pastoral. Barbara Page may primarily make wine as a form of artistic expression and Bear Bishop may chiefly make cider to produce a healthier landscape and a healthier beverage, but they both assuredly intend for their products to be bought and sold within the framework of the free-market. In this respect, artisan food producers reinforce Amy Trubek’s vision of an economic “middle way” that allows for social values to be realized through entrepreneurial activity. Her research reveals that mission-driven culinary enterprises and collaborations between farmers and chefs are forging a new path forward that “neither clings to the past nor is mired in the present.”[xxxvi] Through entrepreneurial engagement that seeks to realize a future-oriented utopian vision that is neither nostalgic nor pre-modern, artisan food producers strengthen the claim that a middle way exists and that it is an increasingly attractive and viable from of productive behaviour.

While consumption is one of the key domains of ethical self-formation[xxxvii] production is an equally fecund, if more frequently overlooked, terrain for fashioning oneself in moral terms. As the ethnographic depictions make clear, vocational migrants to craft food production are not only re-ordering accepted value systems in terms of labour and leisure, they are participating in a re-articulation of “moral narratives of self.”[xxxviii] I would suggest, like Hoey, that artisan stories reflect an interpretation and continuous process of identity formation framed in moral terms. In becoming artisans, food producers shape a sense of self and right action that lends credence to a form of labour seemingly anachronistic on its surface.[xxxix] Through craft food production, artisans re-conceive what it means to live and work in the modern world, make that value system manifest in material and edible form, and rewrite standard scripts of what constitutes the “good life”.[xl] In deriving value from artisan practice, craft food producers complicate the image of disenfranchised food production posited by Julie Guthman.[xli] While rhetorical appeals to the “agrarian imaginary” may in some cases elide inequalities inherent in the food system, empirical scrutiny can also strengthen the claim that artisanship lends itself to a rewarding life and labour.


The examples illustrated above reveal the Janus face of artisanal labour—what from one perspective looks a lot like drudgery from another may well feel like rewarding work.[xlii] The artisanal process itself produces well-made objects, but in doing so has the capacity of producing “good” producers. It is the moral component of making in which artisans simultaneously craft “good” products and themselves as “good” producers that, I argue, gives meaning and value to the quotidian aspects of their daily lives. Interpreting this set of cultural meanings shows that artisan producers are motivated by the belief that their labor and their lives are employed in the production of not only better objects but a better world. It is the layering of utopian idealism with a vital sense of agency that, I suggest, ascribes significant value to artisan labour that is irrespective of the rationalized dynamics of markets and neoliberal exchange. What’s more, it ameliorates the otherwise precarious economics and arduous labour demands that are, almost by definition, implicated in artisanal production.

This study has underlined the lingering social and moral relevance of craft production. So often viewed as anachronisms within the evolutionary schema of modernization, these individuals have at best been put on a pedestal of mummified antiquity and at worst been ignored outright.[xliii] It is no wonder that anthropologists have come to view them as interesting subjects in that their manner of thinking and doing, antithetical to all that modernity has come to stand for, is so clearly destined for extinction. But craftsmanship in America is not only lingering it is decidedly flourishing.

What is it that makes this apparently outdated form of production an interesting and increasingly economically-viable endeavour? Interactions with artisanal food producers suggest the answer is manifold. In one respect it is the understanding that economic activity is never a-social – always embedded in spheres of productive activity that include but also transcend the material. Artisans produce social and cultural capital at the same time that they produce cheese, or chardonnay, or cider. In another respect it is as Trevor Marchand posits, the realization that through craftsmanship comes an integration of muscles and morals and mind, the result he proposes a mode of production that is means to a more rewarding life and work.[xliv] Food producers offer an alternative way of thinking and operating in the world, believing themselves agents capable of effecting real change. Whether this is true or not is perhaps irrelevant, the perception of agency, buttressed by scaffolding composed of the head, the hands, and the heart, vitalizes artisanal labourers and artisan lives.

A survey of craft food production in America offers an enlightening perspective on the myriad ways to frame a good human life. The qualities that make the “good life” good, like those that make “good food” or “good food production” good are never intrinsically so.[xlv] Nevertheless, triangulating these motivations suggest that the predominant values characterized by the idiom of the American Dream are in the process of re-articulation in the hands of artisanally-minded individuals and in the form of wheels of cheese, legs of prosciutto, and bottles of wine. Although similarly convinced that autonomous hard work is the instrumental vehicle towards the pursuit of happiness, food producing artisans value material engagement over material comfort, privilege green and no collar jobs over blue and white collar alternatives, and prefer to conflate labour and leisure than aspire to a hard day’s work that promises rejuvenating play. While food producing artisans remain socially and economically marginal, the artisan approach may well be at the cultural vanguard; a hand-crafted reform movement yet to, but destined to, proliferate to American society more broadly. While the cultural impact of an artisanal ethos remains to be seen, it is clear that ethnographic analysis of artisan food production offers insight into how the radical transformations of modernity—nested processes at once economic, environmental, technological, and socio-cultural—are being coped with, negotiated, and challenged in the practices of everyday life.