The Fourth River

Book Review: Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Sprits, and the return of Artisanal Foods, by Suzanne Cope

By on May 12, 2015

–by Sharla Yates, associate editor, The Fourth River


Something More: A Food Movement Story

When you take a bite out of a $7.00 artisanal chocolate bar, you expect something more than what a less expensive, mass-produced chocolate can provide—more refined ingredients, perhaps organic. A sophisticated flavor. A respect for trade and of the environment. Ethically sourced ingredients. Craftsmanship. And a good story.

Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the return of Artisanal Foods by Suzanne Cope, published in 2014 by Rowman and Littlefield, investigates, in 209 pages, the origins of artisanal foods in America. Cope asks the important questions: What is artisanal food, and its cultural phenomenon? When does size and success determine that a product is no longer “craft” or “artisanal”? What are the differences between East and West Coast approaches, pastoralism and environmentalism? Where did the concept of artisanal come from, and where is it likely going? Not a how-to book, but part history and part anthropology mining, the text follows the stories of artisanal pickles, cheese, chocolates, and spirits and the craftspeople making these products today. Cope’s entry into understanding the artisanal food movement was to research the people behind the craft and to include their stories so that the reader can better understand this movement too.

Most people whom she interviews are young entrepreneurs who, during the recession of the mid 2000’s, turned to making quality food products that also tasted good. Some returned to old family recipes and gave them a twist, creating something handmade with traditional value. Others looked for ways to make their farms self-sustaining, while still others wanted to give attention to ethical practices and environmental issues. What resulted was a creative, community-driven “food revolution” that has since become a force in today’s food industry.

Cope’s descriptions can whet an appetite. For example, after reading the second chapter “Pickles: Artisans, Craftsmen, and Hip entrepreneurs,” details of Travis Grillo’s pickling offerings, “from spicy cucumbers to small cinnamon-laced whole apples […] all pack a satisfying crunch,” had me searching out jars of handmade pickles at my local Whole Foods and farmers market. Much to the credit of her writing style and attention to what makes each product unique, my pickle intake at least tripled during my time between her book’s pages, savoring their brininess as I did her prose.

Food is more than what you eat. It has tradition, place and culture, and brings people together. Cope admits in the last chapter, “Defining The Movement, One Bite At A Time,” she was only able to interview a wedge of people, and there are many others whose stories are part of the movement, but didn’t make it into the book. Even so, the stories included provide a gratifying scope and explain the science behind many of these products.

Cope reflects, “What I found was that each business had a specific narrative or adaption of a specific narrative that helped to define its industry and how it presented its industry to the consumer. And each industry represents and element of the artisanal food revolution as a whole that is apparent in various industries.” She goes on to explain what each industry brings to the movement. The picklers are the movement’s “hip entrepreneurs [….] updating the role of counter-cuisine [and] broadening this new movement and making it all their own.” The cheese makers’ narratives remind us of the connection to the land, illustrating “how American originality is an important characteristic of this movement.” The chocolate makers are “helping to redefine the idea of terroir—by using the connection of flavor and ethical business and environmental practices and craftsmanship to define their industry.” The distillers are “working the land to (re)create the traditional connection between farming and spirit distillation.” (197-198).

After all the interviews and travels from picklers in Brooklyn, New York to distilleries in Portland, Oregon, from dairy farms in California and Vermont, to chocolate factories in Somerville, Massachusetts as well as many stops in-between—Cope comes to the conclusion that comprehending the artisanal food revolution requires a balanced perspective. Though we buy the more expensive artisanal food because we share a value with the people making the food, Cope warns that the standards we hold can be limiting, and are perhaps overly romanticized. As a consumer of artisanal foods, we need to keep in mind the costs to the craftsperson to make his or her product, that technology may play an important and necessary role in food production, how success may lead to higher demand, and how more hands on the product does not necessarily mean it is no longer artisanal. Indeed, Cope argues, the very term “artisanal” needs a widely accepted definition so it does not lose meaning like the word “natural” has. After all, beyond the story behind the product—the struggling artist and her or his hard earned inspiration—we also eat the $7.00 chocolate bar because, frankly, it tastes better.