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The Revolution Will Be Handcrafted!
Transforming American Taste, Style, and Buying Habits: Reviewing Grant McCracken’s ‘Return of the Artisan’
I don’t harbor much nostalgia for ideas, but I do for flavors and taste experiences. My maternal grandfather used to raise and dry persimmons. He’d peel and hang them by cotton cord tied around the stem from the eaves of his house; southern exposure provided the persimmons maximum warmth and sunlight to dry. The final product was dense and chewy and hit the palate like a blend of brown sugar and cantaloupe.
My grandfather died many years ago now, and I haven’t had dried persimmons since. But I was hankering for the flavor recently. Not sure where the mood came from but I had to know: Where could I get some here in Tennessee? Not my local grocery store. Publix is fine, but they don’t keep dried persimmons on hand. Nor does my local Whole Foods. At least, I’ve never seen any.
No worries. I Googled and found several producers hawking this special treat on Etsy. There’s a batch en route to me now from, of all places, Turkey.
Etsy began its life in 2005 as an e-commerce platform for artisans to gather and sell their handiwork. By 2012 there were a million sellers and 10 million active buyers on the platform. By 2018 sellers had doubled, buyers quadrupled. A year after that 45 million people chose among 60 million products listed by 2.5 million sellers.
Etsy is just one node in a vast network of specialized exchange defined by words such as handcrafted, custom-made, bespoke, small batch, single-source, curated, certified organic, farm-grown, farm-to-table, shop local, limited run, locavore, microbrewed, indie, quirky, niche, and related terms.
We’re living through a sweeping revolution of the small, according to anthropologist Grant McCracken in Return of the Artisan, in which massive purveyors of mass goods are increasingly losing ground to artisans selling their wares in easily overlooked corners. Every aspect of American commerce—from the food we eat to the furniture we buy, the clothes we wear, and the art we hang on our walls—has been directly or indirectly affected by this movement.
Most fads are just fizz atop the glass of culture, but the artisanal revival is about a half-century old now and has settled into the brew we’re all drinking. It’s one of the most successful social movements of the last century, argues McCracken, on par with hip-hop’s cultural takeover or the digital revolution.
It’s an interesting thought experiment: Who changed America more, Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple, or Alice Waters, founding chef of Chez Panisse? Waters launched her restaurant in Berkeley, California, in 1971 and inspired a generation of chefs who fanned out across the country, elevating food wherever they went. The emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, farm-to-table, and agriculture as part of the dining experience—that’s all Waters. And it’s impacted everything from the resurgence of American small farms and local markets to celebrity chefs who enthuse about the quality of ingredients, the bazillion local chefs emulating them, and homecooks trying to do something interesting with all that kohlrabi in their CSA box.
Jobs might win the challenge, but it’s hard to overstate the influence of Waters and her culinary offspring. “In 2019, half of Americans called themselves foodies,” writes McCracken. No one would have seen that coming in the 1950s.
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Following WWII, Americans wanted food that was preprocessed, prepackaged, prepared, and preferably nothing like Grandma made—or even touched by human hands. This was the era of Minute Rice, Kraft Cheese, Eggo Waffles, Imperial Margarine, Pop-Tarts, Rice-a-Roni, and TV dinners from companies like Banquet, Morton, and Swanson. Industrial food for an industrial nation.
What both Jobs and Waters shared in common was a hippie ethos that allowed them to break from prevailing patterns and imagine a more humane and integrated way of living. Jobs put the personal in computing and imagined countless persons connected through their devices. Waters brought the seasons, the farmers, Old World culinary tradition, and New World curiosity and creativity into the kitchen and dining room. Neither invented what they made. Instead, they harnessed a mood, instilled it with high-stakes conviction, and offered it in the marketplace.
The story of what happened next is too vast and sprawling to fit between two covers. Instead, McCracken dissects the movement, offering a rapid summary, a series of case studies, and a fascinating look at the values that undergird it all to this day.
The mood is important. Waters, and later Jobs, were breathing the same air as people like Whole Earth Catalog-originator Stewart Brand. There was something stirring all over the country but whirligigging in California. McCracken follows the effect as it spun out in restaurants and cookbooks; centralized in places like Brooklyn, New York, and Boulder, Colorado; manifested in mixology and craft brewing; transformed grocery shopping at Whole Foods (founded in 1980) and other markets; and ultimately swept the country.
This would have been significant all by itself. But the artisanal revival did more. By disrupting the mass-culture conveyor belt, artisans made space and created markets for other contributors. Subcultures marginalized and overlooked by the mainstream found a voice—so did immigrant communities. Americans might require the scale provided by major corporations and industrial producers, but they now also craved things authentic, unmediated, organic, occasionally funky. It makes Etsy feel almost inevitable in retrospect.
One of many strengths of McCracken’s treatment is to explore and explain the values that imbue the movement. The list includes:
These are recognizable to most anyone who has wandered through a farmers market, a downtown street fair, or the website of a local craftsperson. But McCracken probes deeper, investigating conflicts and contradictions. For instance, McCracken examines some of the anti-capitalistic impulses of the movement and shows how participants are actually reforming and transforming capitalism; the market always wins, sometimes by converting its enemies. And he explores how the movement embraces many who have been left out of the mainstream, both culturally and economically; when the standard job track doesn’t tolerate or appeal, a person can make a way of their own.
Still, it’s not all upside. Take one tradeoff inherent to the life of the artisan. “For better or worse,” says McCracken of a person who might depart corporate America, “the artisan is obliged to be freestanding and self directing. There is no company to confine her. But this also means there is no company to sustain her.”
Thankfully, there are communities that sustain the artisan and, as consumers and even makers ourselves, we can contribute to those communities. It’s not hard these days; we’re likely already participating in those communities, even if we don’t realize it. And that’s the mark of a true revolution. “That’s the moment the movement goes from ideal to idea to reality,” says McCracken. “Right, we say to ourselves, it’s a thing. Soon after, Right, it’s the thing. Eventually, we stop thinking about it altogether. We have a new assumption.”
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