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Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Food for Thought

February/March 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Ryan Fletcher Work - 4

Ryan Fletcher’s work offers chefs and diners a unique experience. But his collaborations are also experiments; he’d like to see his designs produced on a larger scale, available at lower prices to a wider audience. A handmade, one-of-a-kind $50 mug is still underpriced when you calculate an hourly wage, he points out. Photo: Courtesy of the artist


The food movement is big, mainstream business these days. Farmers’ markets are springing up like mushrooms – and small farms and artisanal producers are also on the rise. Meanwhile, farm-to-table restaurants are redefining fine dining, while countless cookbooks celebrate regional and sustainable fare. “Local” has become more than a buzzword; it’s shorthand for what the food movement offers: a healthy, environmentally  responsible, and richly experiential way of eating.

For craft insiders, the ties might be easy to see: Many of the motivations and rewards – the ingredients, if you will – that have fueled this dietary and cultural renaissance are the same ones that draw people to craft, especially to everyday, functional objects. Yet amid all the chatter about heirloom vegetables and heritage meats, a concern for functional craft – and a next step of mindfulness with dishes, textiles, clothing, furniture, and more – can feel like a relative blind spot. It’s the paradox of paying a little extra for fair-trade coffee – and not thinking twice about drinking it from a mass-market mug.

So what could the craft community build on or borrow from the food movement?

Where It All Began
Before answering that question, let’s go back to the food movement’s roots. This “new” way of eating is, viewed in a certain light, a revival. Just as many people have observed that interest in do-it-yourself craft culture seems to come in cycles, so food appears to be returning to its past.

At the turn of the 20th century, most edibles were consumed within 50 miles of their source. (For contrast, see Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s 2007 book, The 100-Mile Diet, which chronicles the contemporary challenge of dining within double that radius, and helped popularize the concept of “food miles.”) Over the past 70 years, demographic shifts toward urban centers, infrastructure developments such as highways, technological advances, and global economics helped develop the industrialized food system we’ve come to know – where food now travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach our plates and terms such as “factory farm” have entered our vocabulary.

Within the past decade or so, things started to turn noticeably sour. Our health was suffering, for one thing. And food didn’t taste so great. It was also getting hard to trace where it came from – which doesn’t sound too problematic until you consider mad cow disease, E. coli outbreaks, and horsemeat scandals.

The food movement staked its claim on the idea that food, especially locally produced on a smaller scale, can be healthier, more sustainable, and more humane – but also more pleasurable, more personally rewarding. Because as we re-evaluate what we demand of our food, we’re also reawakening our connection to eating. What’s more, this awareness looks to be here to stay. We’re seeing the hallmarks of what sociologist Amitai Etzioni calls a “moral megalogue” – dialogue on a national scale, through which shared values develop.

For the Masses
That’s good news for farmers, restaurateurs, and, basically, everyone who eats. What lessons might craft glean? Where, when, and how has the food movement found success?

One clue might be found in how gracefully local food, in particular, spans social strata: You can find it at fancy restaurants, sure, but also passed in paper baskets from the windows of food trucks and, increasingly, on the menus at casual eateries. This is more than a function of a basic truth – everybody eats; instead, it’s a core characteristic of the movement and its broad appeal. By tapping into regional pride, local food positions itself as vernacular food, accessible food – food for everyone. (One of the movement’s subtle yet impressive successes has been overturning a hierarchy that posited “imported” as more desirable than “homegrown.”)

This ethos has opened up how food is served and sold. Food trucks, for example, are not seen as “lesser” destinations (or career aspirations) than their stationary counterparts. (“The reign of the roach coach is over,” GQ saucily proclaimed in 2009.) Successful chefs have literally hit the road, intent on bringing their creations to the masses. In doing so, they have made inventive cuisine available to an audience who might never have walked through hallowed restaurant doors.

Such democratization does happen in the craft world: Woodworker Scott McGlasson, for example, sells his work at shows, stores, museum shops – and, for several years now, farmers’ markets. “Seeing my work in this setting is surprising, but at the same time it is approachable for people,” he says. You could also point to the Clay Studio’s Guerrilla Mug Assault, which distributed 500 handmade mugs in Philadelphia in exchange for disposable cups, or to Alleghany Meadows’ Artstream Nomadic Gallery, a refurbished trailer that puts contemporary ceramic art on the street. But to really wrap your head around the food-truck phenomenon, try, just as a thought experiment, imagining a rock-star craft artist telling her many galleries she’s going to change gears, spend her summer selling modestly priced functional works at regional fairs, and – this is key – being hailed as innovative rather than considered, well, insane.

In its pursuit of recognition for its artistry, fine craft may have forgotten how to capitalize on how it differs from fine art. Take clay. “Not all ceramic objects reside comfortably on monolithic white blocks or plinths,” Namita Gupta Wiggers, director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, reminded us in the 2013 NCECA Journal. “This is not because they are not ‘Art’ – but because they are art and something more.”

Craft, like food, can be compelling in many forms. And the success of the food movement in various settings nudges us toward a perspective that takes courage (and, perhaps, new ideas about status and success) to embrace: Quality is not contingent on venue. Reaching a broader audience is. (Therein, perhaps, lies the studio craft world’s discomfort with venues such as Etsy.)

But, you might say, food has powerful political backing, driven by economic incentives and evolving social mores, such as growing awareness of childhood obesity and other consequences of our industrial food system. That’s all true. And the recent backlash against genetically modified food has added even more momentum to the movement.

But craft, too, once stirred the political and social spirit. “It is no accident that the American studio craft movement took shape during the atomic age,” Sarah Archer, then director of Greenwich House Pottery, wrote for Hand/Eye in 2010. “It made manifest a longing for simplicity, a veneration of centuries-old hand-skill in an age when machines were both adored and feared, and it offered a fierce rebuke of the consumerist, post-war lifestyle that was rapidly dominating the American consciousness through magazines, television, movies, and the marketplace.”

Today’s food movement is responding to a flawed system and mounting, well-publicized evidence of its failings. Craft, specifically functional goods and especially clothing, could also position itself as a solution to large-scale dysfunction, if a survey of books published in the past few years is any indicator. Books like Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (2009) and Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2012) have made headlines.

“And now we’ve got the Bangladeshi labor crisis,” Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess said in this magazine last fall. “If that is not a wake-up call to fast-fashion consumers . . . ” And yet, we have to ask: Was it? It’s been nearly a decade since fiber artist Terese Agnew stitched her striking Portrait of a Textile Worker, an image of a Bangladeshi woman created with thousands of brand-name clothing labels. Slow fashion’s progress has itself been painfully slow.

Burgess, whose nonprofit Fibershed fosters regional textile supply chains, pointed to one of the major stumbling blocks: You can’t just plop down a retail outlet and say, “Shop here” in lieu of a big-box store – especially when customers are, potentially, working at that big-box retailer, earning the low wages that keep prices so low (and, in a vicious cycle, limit them to shopping there, too).

We might know that contemporary consumer culture is problematic; the information is out there. We might sense that craft, with its emphasis on quality over quantity, is part of the answer. But if we are moved to take that first step – and if the craft community wishes to be the alternative – the door needs to be open.

The food movement has excelled at providing entry points at many economic levels. Yes, organic or fair-trade produce can cost more (although, contrary to popular perception, not always), and there are widely distributed lists of which items are best to focus on if you can’t go whole hog. Most farmers’ markets, too, now take food stamps, and a growing number of public school programs emphasize local ingredients as a component of healthy lunches.

The $8 that gets you a bowl at a conventional retail shop, however, isn’t going to get you very far at a craft fair. The answer is not for craftspeople to undervalue their work. But if craft, as a field, wants – emphasis on “wants” – to ride prevailing social, ethical, and political winds, as food has, it has to get serious about imagining viable ways to serve more than a luxury market.

Seeking What’s Real
Perhaps the strongest tie, however, between craft and food is the most nuanced – the idea of offering meaningful experiences, seemingly scarce in our world.

Consider this amazing passage from Cooked, Michael Pollan’s latest book:

“Even as it vanishes from our daily lives, we’re drawn to the rhythms and textures of the work cooks do, which seem so much more direct and satisfying than the more abstract and formless tasks most of us perform in our jobs these days. Cooks get to put their hands on real stuff, not just keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi. They get to work with the primal elements, too, fire and water, earth and air, using them – mastering them! – to perform their tasty alchemies. How many of us still do the kind of work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world that concludes – assuming the chicken Kiev doesn’t prematurely leak or the soufflé doesn’t collapse – with such a satisfying and delicious sense of closure?”

Change only a few words, and Pollan could be writing about craft – a material dialogue with the world – and the undeniable human craving for such experiences.

Food as a form of engagement with the material world may have an advantage here. Eating effortlessly lends itself to feeling like an experience; it invariably has a beginning, middle, and end. It hits us with taste and  scent, rallying all five senses to its cause. Though there may be a financial transaction involved, as in a restaurant meal, the bill tastefully arrives after the fact – it’s not part of the experience. And if people are seduced by their palates? If they wish to try their own hand at this craft? There’s a workshop, stocked with tools and materials, in every home: We call it a kitchen.

Craft has a harder case to make, in part because it’s stuff. And the prevailing way to engage with stuff in this culture is as consumers – which right now means we both desire stuff and consider a lot of it disposable. But an object with a meaningful origin, an object that can be an experience not just once, but repeatedly? That’s powerful. And that’s craft. Try explaining that feeling, though, to someone who hasn’t thought much about the bowls they use, or where they came from, beyond “the store.” Try explaining it when a $55 price tag is staring at you both.

It’s no coincidence that the food movement has traded heavily on the idea of experience in marketing restaurants, products, and more. Finding ways to underscore objects’ potential to be experienced – not just purchased – is a first step toward transforming public mindset. We might look to Ryan Fletcher, a ceramist who has forged a career collaborating with chefs, designing specialized tableware that becomes a component of – and not just a canvas for – dining. Or to Brian R. Jones, another ceramist whose work includes encased plates, meant to be taken out and used on special occasions, like birthdays. (What a perennial gift such a work would be for a child.)

At Alex Matisse’s East Fork Pottery in North Carolina, kiln sales are “big, festive, food-filled celebrations,” Jodi Rhoden wrote for the Bitter Southerner, a website chronicling the region’s rich stories. As Matisse’s partner, Connie Coady, explained: “I’m trying to encourage Alex to educate a new, younger, wider-reaching community about how owning fewer, but better-made, humble, beautiful objects can enrich the tapestry of daily life in a substantial way.”

The ways craft, just like good food, can nourish our lives.

Julie K. Hanus is American Craft’s senior editor.