Here’s more of my discussion with Patric Kuh, author of “Finding the Flavors We Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, how artisans reclaimed American Food” (Ecco, $26.99). Find the earlier discussion here. Meet Mr. Kuh on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at a free reading and book signing at Common Good Books in St. Paul.
Q: What was it like to meet some of the country’s pioneering cheesemakers?
A: It was very affecting, because their values, which they’ve maintained, were at one time countercultural values. They chose to leave the city and go back to the land. They chose agricultural work, which is very hard work. They proved themselves to their neighbors, who were naturally distrustful of anyone doing farming on a lark. One of the great ironies is that they have come to represent bedrock values in their communities.
After 40 years of hauling hay bales, Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack of Orb Weaver Farm just donated 300 acres to the Vermont Land Trust. They’re maintaining Vermont’s beautiful landscape. So when people say that artisanal food is only for food for people who can afford it, my answer is that the next time you drive up the Champlain Valley and enjoy unobstructed views of the Green Mountains, you can thank cheese artisans. Isn’t that worth extra 50 cents a pound?
Q: You mention the phrase “gateway ingredient.” What is that?
A: It’s the ingredient — or ingredients — that a chef uses to summarize what they’re trying to do with food, to anchor them. It’s often a basic, fundamental ingredient, something evocative, and meaningful. It’s often something from their heritage. For Jean-Louis Palladin, it was probably foie gras.
A: What is it about Palladin's story that grabs your interest?
Q: He was a fancy French chef with two Michelin stars who said, ‘The ingredients are [in the U.S.] are so good that I want to use them.’ This was in an era when chefs of that stature were supposed to import their ingredients.
Q: You also spend time with chef Carlos Salgado of Taco María in Orange County, Calif. Is corn his gateway ingredient?
A: Yes, and the way he approaches it as a modern chef. He’s a popular chef buying corn from small producers in Mexico, with a real awareness of the economic chain that he’s a part of. By buying that corn, he’s making sure that type of corn is maintained. He’s giving the person growing it a reason to grow it, and an economic benefit for growing it, which might mean that a younger person might have a reason to stay in that community. And the customer is tasting something ancient, in a completely contemporary setting. That’s a lot more resonant than flown-in Dover sole. I find chefs who can connect the dots, they’re the ones that are really driving this discussion. They’re the ones who are articulating things in a really exciting way.
Q: What did you learn from your examination of church lady cookbooks?
A: That’s the whole second part of the book: how did we lose our way? How did American food go from something so vital to something that an entire generation reacted against? I traced the answer to charitable cookbooks. The Huntington Library in San Marino [in the Los Angeles metro area] has a great collection, thank goodness, and it’s a real index for following that change. I’d see recipes from 1895 for wilted dandelion greens with veal breast and soda biscuits, and it sounds completely local and fantastic and American, like something from the most contemporary menus. By 1955, it’s five-can casserole. What happened? These recipes were written by women who wanted to do the best for their families, and sort of share in the bounty and aesthetic of the moment. That five-can casserole represented modernity, and of course there was a reaction against it.
Q: Can we go back to Wisconsin’s Uplands Cheese Co. for a moment? You said that it was the case where “a lot of these trajectories came together.” Can you be a little more specific?
A: There’s the idea of the self-taught artisan. There’s the ecological aspect of rotational grazing, and that the cheese is only as good as the milk that the cow’s produce. It’s a farmstead cheesemaker, meaning they’re making cheeses from the milk of their own herd. There’s not blending, no other farms, just them. The cheese has a better chance of being unique. Then there’s the aspect of time. That’s what I’ve come to define artisan by: are you putting in the necessary time to develop full flavor? In cheese, that can take months, or years. Then there’s the trajectory of the two young couples who are running it today — Andy and Caitlin Hatch, and Scott and Liana Merica — and the sense of rural community being invigorated by something fabulous and artisanal. It’s not some chichi little thing that’s better because people are told that it’s better. The values are too real for that.
Q: I find it interesting how the artisanal vocabulary always seems to be in flux. Do phrases like “fancy food” seem dated?
A: Remember when “imported” was the golden word? Of course it was synonymous with “fantastic,” and you spent what it took. Now “local” is the new “imported.” But “fancy food,” what does that even mean? When Zingerman’s started in Ann Arbor, they were selling Carr’s crackers and Grey Poupon, that was stepping it up. They’re very good foods, but today they’re nobody’s idea of anything exotic. These foods have entered into the everyday aspect of eating. We’ve lowered the temperature on the way we talk about it. It’s good bread, good cheese, good beer. The more we talk about it, the more we get away from a word like “fancy,” which is such a peculiar word, with so many shadings. I find it slightly archaic. Of course I say this with some reservation, because there are so many food-related problems in this country, including hunger and obesity. So it’s a broad generalization.
Q: I loved learning more about Nancy Silverton, and her early years at La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. Why did you choose to highlight her story?
A: I was very taken with the trajectory of the American craftsperson and their dilemma: How to become a skilled craftsperson without the benefits of a European guild system and apprenticeships? Here is this person who decides to learn how to do a very difficult thing, without the support systems that she would have if she were living in another country. Part of the story of the artisan is their drive for excellence. Nancy didn’t just want to make bread, she wanted make better and better bread. That’s a key component of artisans. They’re driven by this idea of excellence. I really respond to people who are driven in that manner.