The Preservationists Vs. the Artisans

Sometimes the New York Times annoys me.

Yesterday—in case you missed it—the Dining and Wine section featured a “D.I.Y. Cooking Handbook.” For most of the day, at least until nuclear fears and March Madness pushed it down the page, the story held a coveted spot just to the left of the videos. Click through, and you encountered an invitation to make your own mustard, vinegar, kimchi, and even Nutella. But do not fear, apartment dwellers! The author assured readers that the recipes are not seasonal and that they would require neither canning nor freezing. “Before getting underway,” Julia Moskin writes, ” it’s not necessary to understand lactic fermentation, or to learn the difference between bacon and pancetta.”

ARRRRGH. Where to begin. Let’s start with this. Has the author tried freezing kale, which she mentions as a particularly terrifying activity? I’m wondering which part of blanching vegetables and sticking them in plastic bags is so complicated, especially compared to, say, making tesa, a kind of cold-cured pork belly? And how do you reconcile the line that “You can’t get more local than your own kitchen” (from the introduction) with recipes that involve hazelnuts and chocolate? Are there secret cocoa plantations hidden in the wilds of Long Island? And what’s with the random swipe at Charcutepalooza’s February challenge?

I was trying to figure out what, exactly, ticked me off about this article. To begin with, I have a knee-jerk reaction against reporting that presents knowledge as bad. As an editor, it makes no sense to me that the Times will front complicated diagrams of nuclear reactors, but somehow decide that explanations of canning, lactofermentation, and freezing (?!!) are beyond its readers. The piece was also sort of randomly researched. The bibliography includes some useful links, like the National Center for Home Food Preservation, Hank Shaw’s Hunter Angler Gardner Cook, Kate Payne’s The Hip Girls’ Guide to Homemaking, and Charcutepalooza (at which I seem to be 1 for 3, but that’s another story). But no Food in Jars? Seriously? And what about Punk Domestics, your one-stop-shop for kitchen DIY? No Canvolution? No smaller-but-just-as-brilliant blogs, like Hitchhiking to Heaven?

I recognize that I’m partially annoyed that the New York Times does not recognize the brilliance of my hard-working canning friends, without whom there would be no canning phenomenon to merit a backlash against. I’m biased. Fair enough.

But I think this is about something deeper. For me, this article highlighted the fundamental divide in the DIY food community between artisan production and resourcefulness. On the one hand, you’ve got what I would call the Artisanal Brooklyn Movement (or perhaps Moment)? These are the folks bringing you $9 pickles. It’s a movement fueled by a desire to achieve freedom from corporate producers and industrial food. (These are values I share, by the way.) It is not, however, a movement that’s about simplicity or locality. As the Artisanal Brooklyn Movement moves toward self-parody, it seems more and more like its proponents are suggesting that you continue to eat the stuff that you get at high-end restaurants and specialty groceries—but instead of purchasing them, they suggest that you learn to make them yourself. And this, my friends, is how you end up making your own maple vinegar.

The most avid proponents of local food preservation, on the other hand, push austerity and making do. How long can you push the harvest? What’s the maximum distance of your food shed? Do you find that blueberries in March are better dehydrated, frozen, or canned? Sometimes you sacrifice quality for the satisfaction of knowing where your food comes from. Rather than something to be worked around, seasonality is the point. In spring you plan and plant; in summer you eat from your garden; in fall you harvest and preserve; in winter you eat from your stores. It’s alternatively exhausting, exhilarating, and monotonous. And this, my friends, is how you end up eating frozen kale salads in March.

Don’t confuse DIY with food preservation. There’s something to be said for each. While I happen to find frozen kale delicious, I wouldn’t eat nearly so much of it if it didn’t keep so well. It’s not very exciting, and I doubt that I’m going to see it offered up in my local boutique grocery anytime soon. It is, however, extraordinarily dependable, and cheap. So, I’ll stick with it. At the same time, I recognize the joys to be had from homemade artisanal products made with specialty or imported ingredients. As I type this, I’m sipping organic coffee imported from Costa Rica, sweetened with sugar from God-only-knows where. My coffee would be even better accompanied by a fancy homemade cracker topped with homemade Nutella—maybe I’ll try my hand at it next week.

All of which is to say that maybe the DIY Cooking Handbook isn’t necessarily so awful. It’s just not talking to me. I’m trying to take this as a reminder that I want my own posts to be as inviting to those of you coming at this from the artisanal side as this piece was originally off-putting to me. And I offer my solemn promise that knowing how lactofermentation works won’t make your kimchi taste any more sour (unless you like it that way).

But enough of my grumpiness. What did you think? How’s that tomato chili jam?

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20 comments to The Preservationists Vs. the Artisans

  • You know, I hadn’t actually read it yesterday, I just looked at the links, but I agree the snark is particularly irritating. To me, I think it’s a case of you-can’t-have-it-both-ways: with that build up, I would have expected some solid, basic recipes of the decidedly anti-foodie variety: how to make your own buttermilk, Bisquik, brown sugar. For the advanced student, DIY squeeze bottle yellow mustard, basic ketchup, homemade teriyaki. There is a certain pride in making basic grocery store staples at home that I can certainly get behind.

    But the article doesn’t offer basics; it offers homemade fromage blanc, home-fermented maple vinegar, kimchi and cold-cured pork belly. While snarking that you don’t need to know anything about lactic fermentation, it has you DO lactic fermentation (ie kimchi) without telling you so. While snarking that you won’t have to “put up huge bundles of kale” (yep, that blanche-freeze process always breaks me) it has you chase down ingredients like rennet, pink curing salt and live vinegar (surely your next door neighbor brews their own and will lend you a cup of starter!).

    So, to me, it is a bit more than the preservationists vs the artisans – I usually see that as a spectrum, with most of us scattered in the middle somewhere; some a little closer to the practical, preserving end, some a little closer to the push-the-limits artisanal end. It is, truly, trying to capture all audiences yet failing to appeal to even one: trying to poke fun at foodies while dishing out oh-so-foodie recipes. The next book? DIY: A Recipe for Disaster (or How to Piss Off Your Entire Demographic in Three Easy Paragraphs).

  • Thank you for this. I was irked by the Times article, as well, mostly because of the sentence: ”it’s not necessary to understand lactic fermentation, or to learn the difference between bacon and pancetta.” I beg to differ. If one wants to take on projects such as these, I think it’s essential to have an understanding of, for example, lacto-fermentation. I for one make kimchi, sauerkraut, etc. because I do understand the process and especially the health benefits that are a direct result of the process. What’s the point otherwise? Because it’s cool? Ugh. Many of the recipes in that list looked pretty good to me, but it was definitely an ill-conceived list for something called a “DIY Cooking Handbook”.

  • This is far less obnoxious than the anti-foodie tirade in The Atlantic recently, for what that’s worth. I think that the motivation to demystify these processes is a positive one, but that it wasn’t very well done. A more accurate title would have been “Some random, not-too-scary, not overly researched, semi-dumbed down DIY projects that use ingredients from all over the place.” But that didn’t fit, obviously, because David Brooks needed plenty of room to explain how Real Americans™ support entitlement cuts and tax breaks for corporations.

  • Excellent post; thank you. As someone who has cooked and researched food on the West Coast for most of my adult life, I’ve always been put off by NYT food coverage. The Artisanal Brooklyn coverage exemplifies this problem. Granted, the people who write the NYT food articles are trying to reach the very urban, apartment-dwelling, upper-middle class readership they hail from and immediately address, but I’ve found the coverage of other states and other ways of life is often that weird mix of poking fun at the exoticism-parochialism they find in other countries — excuse me — other places that aren’t Manhattan.

    I often find the food trends to be either behind the times or missing fantastic stuff on the West Coast as they opt to highlight food with more show-off potential (expense, fancy packaging, pretense) than utility.

    I’ll admit that I did take interest in the recipe for butter. But that’s because I just happen to have homemade crème fraiche on hand, thanks not to the DIY Cooking Handbook but a real (and I might add apartment-dwelling) preservationist, Marisa at Food in Jars.

    All that said, I think all of us preservationists should be complimented on the trickle-down effect of DIY food projects, and yet not encourage the apartment-dwellers to actually learn how simple and good it is to really make-do-it-yourself. We don’t want a run on our canning jars. Let them eat tomato chili jam.

    Jennifer Levin
    Eugene, OR

  • Audra, thank you for this eloquent and intelligent response to yesterday’s woefully inadequate NYT piece. I think Peter, a couple of comments up, perfectly sums up what it should have been called!

    I am, as Kaela suggests many of us are, somewhere in the middle of the preservationist-artisan spectrum. I am known for scouring neighborhoods (not only my own!) for unloved fruit so that it won’t go to waste, I am growing more of my own food each year, and I just invested in a new storage freezer for the basement — but I also love to play and create in the kitchen. Tomato chili jam sounds good to me! For myself, I am learning to draw the line at “preserving” projects that feel wasteful of precious resources rather than conservative of the same.

    Finally, thank you for your kind nod to sincere but smaller blogs like mine. Knowing folks care is part of what keeps us chugging along!

  • Audra, thank you. You articulated it more eloquently than I possibly could have.

  • Two things, in particular, got my attention in that piece:

    1) Failure to mention Vanessa Barrington’s book, DIY Delicious; and

    2) the directive to mail-order rennet, “sold by or” Interestingly, that line, with those sources, appears in the print version of the article (which I have in front of me), but not in the online version. Maybe an editor realized later how ridiculous it was in the context of this particular article?!

  • I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your post and the distinction between journalistic catering to Preservationists vs. Artisans.

    I hesitate to balk at genuine artisan efforts if they lead in time to broader preservation inspirations.

    Personally, as a landscape architect working amidst the parameters of environmental concerns and pleasing design aesthetics and also as a kitchen tinkerer and food lover working with local, seasonal, nourishing ingredients and an affinity for panache, I experience the pull between both camps: the functional and the artful ~ and they are thankfully not mutually exclusive.

    Above, Shae mentioned the spectrum between the two camps, and I offer the following thought: In the effort to draw awareness back to the foods we eat, the sources we support and the self reliance gone missing from a vast generation, we would be best to make good on any avenue that draws readers toward a return to the kitchen.

    Each step toward a mindful engagement with nourishing foods and intentional procurement may be used to continue a thoughtful dialog. Who is to say that someone initially inspired by assembling their own “Corn Muffin Mix” will not feel the satisfaction and be spurred on toward filling that lovely glass jar with something else come harvest time?

  • Thank you so much for this post. I get so irritated every time someone criticizes people who are getting on the gardening/composting/canning/whatever train. AT LEAST WE’RE TRYING.

    xoxox – ruby

  • Yes, yes, yes! I weirdly took personal offense that Food in Jars was not on the list. However, I also agree with Peter’s comment above that it was well-intentioned, if a little snarky. Some of the blogs linked were a little perplexing.

  • Vanessa

    thanks for this post. You hit it with the artisan vs. preservationist analysis. I remember trying to explain to an agent that DIY Delicious (it had a different name back then) wasn’t about teaching people how to make stuff they can buy at Dean & DeLucca. I couldn’t even look at that piece long enough to figure out why it bugged the hell out of me, so yeah, thanks. And Cheryl, I agree, would have been nice if they’d at least mentioned my book!

  • It IS hard to explain why articles like this irk me, and I think you have done a great job (your explanation also describes why this photo shoot in NYT magazine back in October made me want to yak This whole artisanal/foodie fashion movement (moment, ha!) feels false to me. But I would also agree with some of the other posters and say that there’s certainly a spectrum between the preservationists and the artisans, and we can forgive Julia Moskin for her bizarre attempt at appealing to both ends of the spectrum at once.

    What we can’t forgive is the line “You can’t get more local than your own kitchen,” as it refers to recipes that don’t use local ingredients. For this line, Moskin should probably examine her life to see if she’s in the right profession. Or her editor should. The use of the terms “local” and “non-processed” to refer to foods has become so fashionable that people have started to use them without knowing/caring/remembering what they mean. This might just be a pet peeve of mine, but my favorite example is a Sorrento cheese commercial that plays on hulu a lot that claims that their cheese is not “processed” like some of the other cheeses out there. Um, yes it is. All cheese is processed or it’s just milk.

    Whew, enough of my rant. Thanks for your post and I look forward to reading about your garden as the weather warms up!

  • that article was poorly researched, haphazard, and just overall irksome. but i’m not surprised by it. it reminds me of when yoga first became widely popular. from someone who spent summers in an ashram way before bikram was a household name, the way it was popularized and practiced by the masses was on many accounts the antithesis of what i knew it to be. in a nutshell – an ancient tradition practiced to connect to the life force and all that is, dumbed down to basically build a better body. ugh! but then you have to say, if it’s pointed in the right direction than maybe it is not such a bad thing. maybe it’s better than not being pointed in that direction at all. a gateway kimchi…

    while we are on the subject. and audra, thank you for your honesty. i would like to throw out one of my pet peeves surrounding this very divide (disclaimer; i don’t eat meat). the part of the ‘artisan-foodie’ movement that seems to be so meat-happy. i mean, meat restaurants popping up everywhere. 10 course meat-feasts, meat for breakfast,lunch and dinner 7 days a week. i just don’t get it. i’m not saying that the flesh of humanely-raised, small farmed animals should not be consumed. but more is better? not. for me, a preservationist, as you imply audra, is someone who is interested in old-foodways, and also in the resourcefulness, and care of the earth that most of our foremothers and fathers i believe had.

    and please chartcutepalooza peeps, i am not talking about you. after hosting a year-long canning challenge with the intention of celebrating local, i understand the inherent problems in such endeavors!

  • Well done on clarifying some feelings a lot of people were feeling. Now, can we have a softball game?

  • Great post–I didn’t read the article until you posted about it, but it certainly does make me a bit mad. I hate when people give you recipes but don’t explain why you do certain things, especially when that explanation can make you a better cook. It turns cooking and even preserving into this mystifying, impossible task to the regular home cooks, and we all know that is not true. A little knowledge can go a LONG way.

  • Wow – I would have missed that NYTimes article if it weren’t for your post. I agree 100% and felt like we should all be cheering you on and I read.

    I think the reason this type of article irritates us is because they took (in my opinion) the completely wrong angle. Instead of trying to eliminate fear and intimidation of preserving with knowledge, background, explanations – They instead brushed over it like the reader is too dumb to understand. No one likes to be talked down to.

    And obviously the writer doesn’t “get” the local movement if they think those recipes are local. Yep, they missed the mark here.

    We all love to experiment with unusual flavor combinations or try new things. That’s the fun part! But don’t talk to me like I’m stupid. That’s a major turn off.

  • I think the essence of our problems with this piece boil down to the fact that someone like us didn’t write it. I listen to NPR a lot, and for the most part I think their coverage is decent. But when they do a story about art (my main field) it almost always makes me want to throw the radio in the toilet. So this Times writer– who seems to have a decent CV– comes off sort of like Susan Stamberg reviewing yet another impressionism show somewhere. Her perspective or the editor’s or both make it seem like an outsider is describing our world to people who fear our exotic rituals and so they make it seem safe and cute and lacking any of the passion that we all bring to it.

    But that’s why we all have blogs; we write for ourselves and each other. If dumbed-down cliff notes inspire more people to make more stuff from scratch, then so be it. We were not the target audience for this.

  • I <3 you Audra. I'm so happy to read your post. The thing about freezing got my goat (pardon the pun). Your response is so well-put.
    p.s. my blog is only in there because I wrote a how-to re: food-swapping, which ties nicely into the Artisanal Brooklyn Movement (not complaining, just sayin')

  • Dawn

    They lost me at “open a can of commercial plum tomatoes”. Huh?

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