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"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. "When I started the business, I was a big believer in small business. 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 daily produces 400 jars of pickles and sauerkraut in its 12,000-square-foot kitchen. 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 for the Rosenbergs: 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. "Other businesses might make that choice. For us, it would not be a match."
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. But the beans are just one chapter in an epic treatise on quality and social responsibility: 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 our world, quality and integrity are inherently linked to each other," says Deb Music of Seattle's Theo Chocolate, the nation's first organic and free-trade chocolate factory. Theo's image as a global good guy is so ingrained that Ben Affleck partnered with the company to promote economic development in the eastern Congo, while the Jane Goodall Institute and World Bicycle Relief both have branded Theo's dark-chocolate bars.
"For us, there's no luxury in a product that's damaging to the environment," Music says. "It's even a little more nuanced: I think every product needs to be produced in a way that's beneficial to someone or something." She isn't ready to require every small-scale food producer to work toward social justice, though. "Someone who wants to create something beautiful, that's a noble effort," she says. Whether those producers should be welcomed into the artisan fold, though, is a question that an incipient national association of food artisans — the first-ever such group — will soon be forced to answer.
Having to balance craft and community is a task peculiar to food artisans. While winemakers are generally fluent in sustainability and land stewardship, very few drinkers ask sommeliers to recommend something from a community-oriented vineyard to go with their duck confit. That's because while quality is primal in the wine industry, many mustard makers and muffin bakers explicitly launched their businesses as a means of reforming an industrial food culture rife with worker abuses, animal mistreatment, and unhealthy chemicals.
"We believe in capturing the bounty of the peak growing season and bringing it to folks who might not have the knowledge to preserve food themselves," announces the website for Suddenly Sauer, a tiny pickling operation that leads fermentation workshops for inner-city cooks. "Tapping into urban farming projects in Detroit, Suddenly Sauer uses chemical-free produce grown by farmers we know and trust."
In their zeal to offer homespun alternatives to processed food, a few artisans have made decisions seemingly at odds with their stated goals of making everything better for Joe Q. Eater. Following the example set by bootstrap farms and restaurants, pickle makers and distillers — such as Seattle's Firefly Kitchen and Woodinville Whiskey — regularly staff their bottling and labeling sessions with volunteers, in clear violation of labor laws intended to protect workers. And it's not uncommon for newly declared artisans to flout critical health-department regulations.