In a Portlandia sketch from a couple years ago, Fred Armisen asks “Do you remember the ’90s when everyone was pickling their own vegetables and brewing their own beer?…Remember when kids grew up to be artisan bakers? Everyone used to carve their own ice cubes?” He’s talking about the 1890s of course, but also about present-day Portland, Oregon. While urban hipsters across American have become proficient at making their own artisan bread, microbrews, and kimchi over the last decade they have also become extremely successful on marketing and selling their goods. The Mast brothers of Williamsburg, for instance, have turned their bean to bar artisan chocolate shop into a popular Brooklyn tourist destination. The chocolate is delicious but customers really come for the experience. The brothers sport nineteenth-century facial hair, the shop is adorned with antique globes and a large model schooner, and the bars are wrapped in thick beautiful paper with anchor, houndstooth, and bicycle prints. (I will refrain from getting into Brooklyn’s ascent to the artisan food capital of America as this piece from the New Yorker covers that quite well.)
Indeed, the “hipsters” of generations Y and Millennial have become a major influencer of food culture and economies in the 21st century. So much so that economists are taking notice and projecting that the growing purchasing power of young, environmentally and socially conscious “foodies” will “change the food system as we know it.” While the production of local, sustainable, and hand-crafted foods fall in line with certain tenets of the Slow Food Movement, homesteading, and 1960/70s hippie culture, the modern foodster simultaneously shuns industrialized/processed foods while embracing a classic form of capitalism. According to economics journalist Adam Davidson, “The craft approach is actually something new — a happy refinement of the excesses of our industrial era plus a return to the vision laid out by capitalism’s godfather, Adam Smith. One of his central insights in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ is the importance of specialization.”
What artisan food makers are really specializing and selling in places like Brooklyn and Portland is one part food, two parts lifestyle. While food trucks, speciality shops, and breweries are nothing new, their association with youth culture have made them decidedly cooler and more popular in the last decade. And while the mantra may be that once anything cool becomes mainstream it’s “over,” for young food artisans the burlap packaging of hipster culinary culture allows for new opportunities of personal and professional fulfillment.
Conversely, not everyone thinks hipster culture is cool, but there is something to be said for a subgroup who are so influential while also being the butt of widespread mockery (Did you hear the joke about the hipster? Yeah I heard it first and I have it on vinyl). And while some people may have a difficult time taking a thirty-year-old man wearing cut off shorts, a Cosby sweater, and Steve Urkel glasses seriously, if he makes the best charcuterie plate in town they will give him their money.
So why is there such a generational emphasis on making and purchasing local, artisan foodstuffs? Well there’s the obvious answer: quality food is really delicious. (Quality food can also be expensive, but I will punt that conversation until a later blog post.) Many, especially urban, Gen-Yers consider themselves “foodies.” The ubiquitousness of food-related television programs, stylized food magazines such as David Chang’s Lucky Peach, cooking blogs, Pinterest, and the unsolicited see-what-I’m-having-for-dinner Instagram shot, have all contributed to a nation of more adventurous and pretensions palates. Certainly there is a dissertation waiting to be written on the relationship between modern foodie-ism, globalization, and social media.
Millennial’s have also been raised in a world in which information on the horrors of industrial food production–environmental degradation, animal cruelty and hormone use, pest- and herbicides, GMOs, labor abuse, food contamination, etc.–is readily available. Also commonplace is an emphasis on the health risks of processed products and benefits of fresh foods. And a growing sentiment that buying local not only benefits one’s community economically, but provides a fresher, tastier product, and reduces carbon-footprints has encouraged the proliferation of farmers markets, buy local campaigns, and CSAs.
Finally, for many Gen-Yers, the rejection of fast and processed foods may stem from their childhood. Some Gen-Yers (born between 1978-1990) had the benefit of being raised by the first generation of sustainable food-concious young people, the hippies. Indeed, the counterculture of the 1960s/70s popularized organic and health food stores, modern communal farming, and dying their clothes with coffee grounds–however, those of us raised on tofu and rice milk can attest it wasn’t always delicious. But a larger contingent of 80s and 90s kids were not raised by the Keaton’s and found that a majority of their meals originated in a box: Kraft Mac’n’Cheese, Stouffer’s lasagna, lunchables, Corn Pops, Hamburger Helper. And even many of the ex-hippies gradually assimilated into mainstream food culture as work became more time-consuming, budgets got tighter, and priorities shifted. Consequently, the foodsters of Gen-Y have largely rebuffed the freezer aisle and are teaching themselves both traditional and cutting-edge cooking techniques. Whether the adoption of slow foods practices will remain “sustainable” once these young people have their own busy families remains to be seen.
Countless studies and think pieces have suggested that for the tech-savvy, college-educated, and under-employed Generation Y there has been a conscious effort to seek out and create jobs that allow them to “follow their bliss.” Young people more frequently claim work-life balance and flexibility as preferable to salary in selecting employment. As such, the “artisan economy,” coined by Harvard economist Larry Katz, has become a promising alternative to desk jobs. For foodster entrepreneurs there is no guarantee that the demand for artisan and local goods will continue to grow, but trends certainly point in their favor. And if a bust ever leaves them with a warehouse full of heirloom Amercaucana chicken eggs, don’t worry, they can pickle that!