“The package, wrapped and sealed triumphed,” writes Patric Kuh in “Finding the Flavors We Lost” (Ecco, $26.99). America’s subsequent “de-Twinkie-fication” is the subject of this erudite and entertaining book, told through the struggles and triumphs of a maverick generation of farmers, artisanal food producers and chefs. Kuh, restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine, chatted via phone from his Southern California home. For more of the conversation with Kuh, go here.
Q: Do you cringe when you hear the careless ways in which artisan is often invoked?
A: I have cringed, yes. When Frito-Lay introduced artisan Doritos, I did wonder what I was doing. Was I involved in something that had jumped the shark? But just because artisan has become a marketing buzzword, I’m not giving it up. It still has a real valid meaning about quality, and integrity, and skill. I’d rather see it out there being used, rather than relegated to some dusty old term.
Q: You write about a number of chefs, including the late Jean-Louis Palladin. Why?
A: Chefs are such an important part of the story. When they put the cheesemaker’s name on the menu, that’s such a validation for that cheesemaker. Chefs buy on a scale that individuals can’t. Their purchase of two wheels represents the sales of 10 farmers market weekends. Chefs really validated the economic aspect that’s so important to the artisanal movement.
Q: How did you discover Uplands Cheese Co. in Dodgeville, Wis.? Their Pleasant Ridge Reserve has long been a favorite of mine.
A: From the beginning I had this crazy idea that I wanted the story to involve more than Vermont and Sonoma. It had to say how America functions today. Wisconsin has been making great cheese for many years. It annoys me when artisans talk about how they discovered beer, or bread, or cheese. They all existed on a high plane long before.
With its great large commercial dairy tradition, Wisconsin was perhaps the perfect state for that, to say that “Here is this tradition that a new generation picked up and did in a different way.” And the place to say, “We’re doing it better.” At Uplands, a lot of these trajectories came together.
Q: What role have universities played in the artisanal movement?
A: A key role. It’s not your great-grandfather teaching you how to make cheese; it’s a university. When the artisanal movement started, the web of knowledge was whizzing around the country in self-addressed stamped envelopes.
Good, solid, scientific knowledge is a huge kind of security for people who are just starting out. The University of Wisconsin realized early on that smaller-scale cheese was going to be on a parallel track with bigger commercial cheese. The University of California at Davis reinvented the American wine world after Prohibition. This is the heritage of land-grant colleges.
Even food studies programs in universities are expanding the discussion of what authenticity is, what local is. It may not be so hands-on, but there’s a rich intellectual curiosity in colleges for all aspects of food, because food has become such an aspect of identity and even a way to discuss broader political and ecological subjects.
Q: What’s next for the artisanal movement?
A: It’s figuring out how to grow with integrity. Saying that it’s “going corporate” or “selling out” is an oversimplification of the argument.
As I researched, I came to focus on the language of the artisanal movement, and how we talk about it. So much of it is about establishing small scale: the single vineyard, the small-batch bourbon, the single-barrel bourbon. “Craft brewery” isn’t small enough; it’s “microbrewery,” and “nanobrewery.” They are obviously trying to make a point, and I get what the point is. Because big is what destroyed flavor. Industrialized scale ripped apart traditions.
Q: The artisanal food movement has always defined itself as the opposite, right?
A: But today I keep seeing the opposite of small. We can get an ash-dusted chèvre and a hoppy saison at a food court. Large breweries are buying smaller breweries and they’re not ruining them. Instead, they’re being guided by that quality. A parallel way of eating has become a parallel economy, and this should be respected and celebrated.
Big has its benefits. Artisans today are creating jobs and opportunities. They’re also transforming the way America looks. In the Walker’s Point neighborhood in Milwaukee, what would have been warehouses is now distilleries, breweries, a working creamery, and people walking around all weekend. All in a part of the city that had been pretty much abandoned.
Q: Basically, growth is good?
A: Yes. Growth has to be a subject that we can talk about. Sales are a necessary aspect of this. If you’re not selling, it’s a hobby.
I’m always happy to hear stories of growth with integrity. Those flour mills in Minneapolis, they’re a great example. Size did not represent a lack of quality in any way. Their size defined quality.
Unfortunately, the industrial scale and efficiencies also started to pencil out flavor. That’s where the artisanal movement began, when we began to say, “We can reclaim this heritage.”