Why has the artisanal food movement exploded across America? Is it for reasons economic and environmental, a reaction to the mass-produced food in supermarkets and fast food joints, or a longing for simpler times when everything was homemade? Author Suzanne Cope, a food studies teacher at Manhattan College in New York City and a preserving/gardening/cheese-making enthusiast, decided to find out.
In her new book, Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the Return of Artisanal Foods, she explores the trend via these four categories to see what’s behind all the activity. We caught up with Cope to find out what she discovered.
Why is there this uptick in artisanal food producers now?
The recession certainly had something to do with it. People lost their jobs or were unhappy in their jobs and thought, “Maybe I’ll go into business for myself. I’ll be my own boss.” At the same time, it was people getting interested in the environmental movement saying, “I do care about where my food comes from! The best way for me to control that is to source it myself or source it from someone I know is doing it right.” So there was a groundswell of people producing things.
When I started my research I had these assumptions, like, “People just made their grandmother’s jam recipes, wearing cute aprons and standing at their farmhouse stoves.” But no, these people are smart; they went in with a business plan. They were very thoughtful about it.
In the past, there have been people also interested in handmade food who have been part of the counter culture movement or moved to communes… But these people [I interviewed] don’t just want to eat out of their own gardens; they want to do it in a city, where there’s a market, to reach people. They want to be a part of the economy—not operate outside of it.
How else is it different now?
The environmental movement is becoming more mainstream. And I think we could all agree that there’s this foodie culture happening, especially with younger people and those with disposable incomes.
During the counter culture in the ’60s and ’70s, people weren’t so concerned about making delicious things; they wanted to make healthy and sustainable things. It was more about the process of making traditional foods. Now people want delicious and healthy and sustainable foods—and they want to stay in cities and be economically viable. So there’s a new population of who’s interested in small batch foods.
Why did you choose these categories: pickles, cheese, chocolate, and spirits?
I found a similar narrative among these four. All four have a history of being handmade items in our culture for centuries, and they all became industrialized around the same time. Once they were being mass produced, consumer taste started leaning towards conformity. So by the late 1800s and early 1900s, these items had all but lost the handmade flavor to them. And for similar reasons, modern artisans and consumers are seeking to return to more pre-industrialized versions of these products again now.
What about the future of these companies?
The experts I spoke to mostly said similar things: They see more and more people coming into the industry. Most people felt pretty confident that there was room to grow, but that we would also reach a saturation point and only the best would survive.
Do you have a favorite indie food brand or locally made food product?