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Food Links, 28.01.2015

  • How Peter Magubane hid his camera in a loaf of bread.
  • Race, class, and alcohol consumption.
  • Factory farming causes air pollution.
  • New York’s food sweatshops.
  • A municipal boundary dispute and hunger.
  • Whisky is the third biggest industry in Scotland, behind energy and financial services.
  • South African Airways’s wine tenders may have been rigged.
  • Using mosquito nets for fishing.
  • South Africa’s looming water crisis.
  • The uncertain future of Pacific sardines.
  • The 2015 Big Mac index.
  • The best pear.
  • New York City’s last matzo factory is closing.
  • The moonshine renaissance.
  • Cooking while visually impaired in post-1945 America.
  • Bermondsey’s phantom cheesecake deliverer.
  • Fast food to fast casuals.
  • Defending simple coffee.
  • A coffee guide.
  • A cultured meat primer.
  • Fish without the fish.
  • Hershey vs Cadbury.
  • The Double Down Dog.
  • The science of ramen noodles.
  • Meeting Paris’s food producers.
  • The North Carolina food sisterhood.
  • Americans try haggis.
  • The Vegetarian.
  • Coconut oil is not a superfood.
  • Eating breakfast from around the world in London.
  • Unless otherwise specified.
  • Umami and health.
  • Lacing noodles with opiates in China.
  • A guide to black pepper.
  • The invention of instant ramen.
  • Brewing beer using wild yeast.
  • Afro-vegan cuisine.
  • In praise of pigs in books.
  • Ginger syrup.
  • Raw cookie dough can be dangerous.
  • Red blood cell cupcakes.
  • Turner’s favourite tipple.
  • Eating the world in Portland, Oregan. (Thanks, mum!)
  • ‘the great Aussie pie lies at the foundation of the country’s economic health.’
  • Try not to name your daughter Nutella.
  • Jonathan Gold is no longer anonymous.
  • Carrot top pesto.
  • Clotted cream caramels.
  • Texas chili.
  • Make your own condiments.
  • Best nachos.
  • Vegan cheese.

In a Nutshell

On my fridge, I have a collection of business cards from cafes and shops visited on trips abroad. This afternoon—months late—I added another few from a recent month-long stay in Canada and the US, and I was reminded of a fantastic breakfast at the August First bakery in Burlington, Vermont. I was in Burlington for a conference and spent a couple of days beforehand working and wandering around a small university town – I grew up in a small university town so I have a professional interest in them – which has a reputation for extraordinarily progressive and inclusive politics. DSCN1370 There were posters advertising make-your-own banjo classes (out of gourds, apparently), vegan Thanksgiving, and homebrew nights; the local Democratic party was next door to a Tibetan dumpling shop; and I have never been so aware of the plight of the Dalai Lama as I was in the week I spent in Vermont. And there was the most amazing co-operative, which had a wall – a wall! – of granola. Progressive America is, truly, the most amazing place. (In a similar vein, Ann Arbor’s community co-op is opposite a Birkenstock shop.) DSCN1380 I had, then, granola at August First. And it was wonderful granola, with whole walnuts and fat raisins, and with plenty of really good plain yoghurt. Burlington has embraced its granola. But – and I write this as one who makes her own granola – there is a contradiction at the heart of the association of granola with progressive living: a lot of the time, it’s full of sugar. Unlike muesli, which is left raw, granola is baked usually with honey, maple syrup, or (sometimes and) sugar, as well as oil, and, occasionally, egg white. This is not necessarily the healthiest breakfast. So why does granola signify healthy eating? DSCN1386 This isn’t the only food to be linked to left wing politics. Paul Laity notes:

‘Socialism,’ George Orwell famously wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1936), draws towards it ‘with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England.’ His tirade against such ‘cranks’ is memorably extended in other passages of the book to include ‘vegetarians with wilting beards,’ the ‘outer-suburban creeping Jesus’ eager to begin his yoga exercises, and ‘that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers…’

Orwell’s ‘cranks’—a term reclaimed by the London vegetarian restaurant in 1961—were the free-thinking and –living British Bohemians of the early twentieth century, who experimented with new forms of comfortable dress, sustainable eating, eastern religions, egalitarian social arrangements, and alternative sexual identities. This early counter culture was strongly influenced by late nineteenth-century dieticians and naturopaths—many of them based in Germany—who advocated raw, simple eating in contrast to the meat- and starch-heavy meals which characterised most middle-class diets. DSCN1388 As Catherine Carstairs remarks in her essay ‘The Granola High: Eating Differently in the Late 1960s and 1970s,’ it was immigrants from central Europe who brought health food shops to North America, stocking vitamin supplements, wholewheat bread, and, inevitably, fruit juice. It was these shops that made widely available the foods eaten at more exclusive sanatoriums in Europe and the United States.

Like muesli and bircher muesli, granola was invented in a health spa. In her excellent and exhaustively detailed history of granola, Karen Hochman argues that Dr James Caleb Jackson—a farmer, journalist, and doctor—invented granula in 1863 for the patients at his spa, Our Home on the Hillside, in upstate New York. Relying heavily on Graham flour—invented by the dour evangelical preacher Sylvester Graham—he baked sheets of biscuits and crumbled them into granules to be soaked in milk and then eaten for breakfast. It’s likely that granula—the predecessor of Grape Nuts—would never have moved beyond the confines of Our Home on the Hillside had it not come to the attention of a rival sanatorium doctor and Seventh Day Adventist, William Kellogg, who used rolled, toasted oats instead of Graham flour biscuits. He renamed his product granola, and it became for a while a significant money earner for his Sanitarium Food Company (renamed Kellogg’s Food Company in 1908).

But enthusiasm for granola remained—largely—limited to the relatively small numbers of people who shopped in health food stores until the 1960s and 1970s. Then, concern about the effects of pesticides and additives on human, plant, and animal health; suspicion of the food industry; a desire to experiment with diets from elsewhere; and a back to the land movement all coincided to produce an interest in purer, healthier, more ‘natural’ foods. Hippies—another food counter culture—looked back and found granola. So did big food companies, as Hochman writes about the US:

Granola went mainstream in 1972, when the first major commercial granola, Heartland Natural Cereal, was introduced by Pet Incorporated. In rapid succession, Quaker introduced Quaker 100% Natural Granola; Kellogg’s introduced Country Morning granola cereal and General Mills introduced Nature Valley granola.

The sweet, nut- and dried fruit-filled granola we eat today is derived from the granola reinvented in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite having been popularised by Quaker and General Mills—the enemies of the second food counter culture—granola retained its association with progressive, healthy living.

This cultural history of granola tell us three things, I think. Firstly, that the food counter culture has roots in alternative experiments in living stretching as far back as the late eighteenth century, when vegetarianism and lighter diets were picked up as markers of enlightened, rational eating. Secondly, that business has long taken advantage of the experiments done by people working and living on the fringes of respectability.

Finally, it also traces the shifting meanings of what we define as ‘healthy.’ Despite evidence presented to us by nutritionists, what we think of as being healthy food depends on a range of factors, including whether, historically, a product has been associated with health-conscious living.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 21.01.2015

  • The appalling conditions under which farm workers grow America’s fresh produce.
  • ‘Sometimes, I think of that unruly field as my grandparents’ desperation garden.’
  • Butter that costs $49 per pound.
  • American children are eating too much pizza.
  • The implications of commercial bees for wild bee populations.
  • From free school meals to food pantries.
  • British shoppers are paying the same for cucumbers as they did in 1989.
  • Farming without herbicides.
  • French supermarkets take on budget rivals.
  • What the world eats.
  • McDonald’s sales are down.
  • Checking the flow of illicit honey into the US.
  • Turning sewerage into drinking water.
  • Bonnie Slotnick’s recipe book shop will not close.
  • Inside Egypt’s ahwas.
  • Icicle farming.
  • Red velvet Oreos.
  • Determining apples’ ripeness with lasers.
  • Corporate beer is badly watered down.
  • Time-restricted eating.
  • How farmers cope with the cold.
  • Future super foods?
  • Introducing Cuban cuisine. (Thanks, mum!)
  • ‘Even the gleaming teeth in the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall are historically accurate, according to author Hilary Mantel, who says that in an age when eating sugar was uncommon – even for the likes of Henry VIII – tooth decay was much less of a problem.’
  • Where to eat ramen in Tokyo.
  • Bacon biscuits.
  • Conflict Kitchen.
  • The 2015 Piglet.
  • Culinary tours of Cuba.
  • A map of every goat in the US.
  • Curry in English hands.
  • The rise and rise of Jägermeister.
  • The great cookbook breakdown.
  • Make your own flatbread.
  • Chefs love brains.
  • Jonathan Gold on ramen.
  • American Creme Eggs won’t change.
  • Eye of the gazelle.
  • ‘”Each month you can see how it’s changing by how many veggie burgers they sell,” he says. “Each month it’s more. With gentrification you start getting gourmet fried chicken…”‘
  • The salt hotel.
  • The best American cities in which to raise livestock.
  • Make your own buttermilk.
  • Roast a chicken without a recipe.
  • Absurd restaurant stories.
  • Korean women try US junk food.
  • Making cheese in China.
  • Wonder fries.
  • The 8,000 calorie diet.
  • Cocoa cubes.
  • What is a beard friendly pub?

Presumptuous Insect

A few months ago, I was interviewed on a radio station about changing attitudes towards food and eating. After a caller commented that when he’d lived in rural Limpopo, he’d happily eaten frogs, but preferred McDonald’s having moved to Johannesburg, I managed—somehow—to talk myself into an urgent appeal to the nation to eat insects. I’m still not entirely sure how this happened, but I think it was partly connected to the recent slew of articles on why we need to eat insects to save the planet.

This insect turn in culinary fashion is, of course, nothing new. In 1885, the entomologist Vincent M. Holt published Why not eat insects? To some extent, current arguments for eating insects deviate little from this little manifesto. Holt remarks, rightly, that there is nothing inherently dirty about insects—in fact, crustaceans, being bottom feeders, are potentially more dangerous to eat—and that they can form part of a balanced diet. He suggests that Western aversion to eating them is linked strongly to culturally specific ideas about what is fine and not fine to eat. He cites the example of a Chinese banquet at an exhibition in London, pointing out that Britons happily sampled a menu which included cuttlefish, sea slugs, and birds’ nests because it was both exotic and, apparently, healthy. Past Europeans ate insects, and societies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere happily, according to Holt, eat insects:

Beginning with the earliest times, one can produce examples of insect-eating at every period down to our own age. Speaking to the people of Israel, at Lev. xi. 22, Moses directly encourages them to eat clean-feeding insects: ‘These ye may eat, the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.’ …

Cooked in many and various ways, locusts are eaten in the Crimea, Arabia, Persia, Madagascar, Africa, and India. … From the time of Homer, the Cicadae formed the theme of every Greek poet, in regard to both tunefulness and delicate flavour. Aristotle tells us that the most polished of the Greeks enjoyed them… Cicadae are eaten at the present day by the American Indians and by the natives of Australia.

He appeals to his readers:

We pride ourselves upon our imitation of the Greeks and Romans in their arts; we treasure their dead languages: why not, then, take a useful hint from their tables? We imitate the savage nations in their use of numberless drugs, spices, and condiments: why not go a step further?

Contemporary interest in eating insects is, though, strongly connected to anxieties about a food chain which seems to be increasingly ecologically unsustainable. Current methods of producing enough protein for the world’s population are to the cost of animal welfare and good labour practice, consume vast quantities of water, and produce methane and other greenhouse gases. Something needs to change, and insect enthusiasts argue that crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars are a viable alternative to beef, chicken, and pork. In a 2013 report for the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Dutch entomologist Arnold van Huis—academic and author of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)—notes more than 1,900 species of insects already form part of the diets of ‘at least two billion people.’ A lot of these insects are high in protein—higher, in some cases, than beef—and other nutrients. Many of them consume waste, and farming them is comparatively cheap and requires little labour.


This promotion of what Dana Goodyear calls ‘ethical entomophagy’ in Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Easters and the Making of a New American Food Culture, has met with some commercial success. There are now—outside of regions where insects are normally part of diets—businesses dedicated to farming insects for human consumption. It’s possible to buy cricket flour; Selfridges sells chocolate covered giant ants; and pop up restaurants and Noma have featured insects on their menus. The logic is that these high-end sales of edible insects will gradually influence the middle and bottom of the market. A kind of ‘trickle down’ revolution in diet.

While it is certainly true that we can and have chosen to eat foodstuffs once deemed to be dangerous or socially taboo—potatoes in eighteenth-century France, beef in Japan during the Meiji Restoration—these shifts in attitude take time to achieve. Also, in the case of potatoes and beef, these societies were strongly hierarchical with powerful aristocracies. Thankfully, most of us no longer live in a world where the king’s decision to consume a formerly shunned ingredient changes the way that all of us eat.

As every recent article on entomophagy notes, the main obstacle to the widespread incorporation of insects into, particularly but not exclusively, Western diets is a strong aversion to eating them. If only, the argument goes, picky Westerners would give up their hypocritical dislike of insects—they eat shrimp and prawns, after all—and then we’ll all be fine. But I think it’s worth taking this dislike seriously. As Goodyear makes the point, a lot of these insects aren’t particularly delicious. She tries embryonic bee drones picked from honeycomb:

the drones, dripping in butter and lightly coated with honey from their cells, were fatty and a little bit sweet, and, like everything chitinous, left me with a disturbing aftertaste of dried shrimp.

I’ve eaten fried, salted grasshoppers at a food festival on London’s south bank, and they were crunchy and salty—improved, like most things, by deep frying—but otherwise memorable only for having been grasshoppers.

Making insects palatable involves processing, something which almost inevitably increases the ecological footprint of the product. Perhaps even more importantly, as the caller I referred to at the beginning of this post said, insects are widely associated with poverty and deprivation. Modernity—life in the city—requires a new diet. While it is true that in many societies, people do eat insects out of choice, it is equally significant that when they can, people stop eating insects as soon as possible.

Our current anxiety about sustainable sources of protein is driven partly by concern that the new middle classes in China and India will demand to eat as much beef, in particular, as their Western counterparts. I wonder to what extent this concern is part of a long tradition of Malthusian yellow peril: that China, in particular, will somehow eat up all the world’s resources. I don’t have any objection to promoting entomophagy—although trickle down strategies have a fairly low level of success—but I think we should look more carefully at the reasons underpinning our interest in investing in alternative forms of protein, and also be careful that we won’t take seriously the interests and tastes of people clawing their way out of poverty.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 14.01.2015

  • The UK food system is failing.
  • Cassava beer.
  • You can’t boost your immunity.
  • Food in Europe is too cheap.
  • Milk in Britain is too cheap.
  • ‘These self-reported data on diet and exercise have long been called flawed.’
  • Buy-to-leave is killing London, and some of the city’s restaurants.
  • Cocktails and rising house prices.
  • How sustainable is sustainable beef?
  • Almonds are not sustainable.
  • Kathleen Drew-Baker and the Japanese seaweed industry.
  • The return of the Carolina African runner.
  • The joy of potatoes.
  • South Africa’s first black truffle.
  • The popularity of ancient grains in the US.
  • London’s best bookshop cafes.
  • What pilgrims ate – and eat – on the Camino de Santiago.
  • Nigella Lawson on serving cake.
  • Medieval eating.
  • Wearable food.
  • Portraits in pancakes.
  • Whisks of the world.
  • Magical coffee.
  • Craveable food.
  • Film canisters as salt and pepper shakers.
  • A new soul food restaurant in NYC.
  • Cereal Killer Cafe.
  • Pig fat as moisturiser.
  • Pairing wine and junk food.
  • The rise and rise of Greek yoghurt in the US.
  • An eighteenth-century recipe for barley soup.
  • A dog cafe.
  • A Hello Kitty-themed organic farm.
  • A crisp sandwich cafe in Belfast.
  • A new kind of Icelandic beer.
  • Frying toast.
  • How we come to eat things we once hated.
  • A guide to the regional ramen of Japan. (Thanks, mum!)
  • David Chang thinks about ramen.
  • The history of New England’s ice trade.
  • ‘many Swiss pizza-lovers have been urging Swiss authorities to permit the free passage of pizza delivery across the border without having to endure the tedious customs process.’
  • In praise of ugly food.
  • The fried egg bandit.
  • Grey cake.
  • The Creme Egg has changed.

Not for all the tea

When I was finishing my PhD, my friend Jane gave me a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘tea is not a food group.’ She used to shout that into my room—we lived a few doors down from each other in the same student residence—as she passed me on the way to the lift. She had good reason for doing so. When I’m absorbed in writing, I can forget that the world exists: that it’s necessary to brush your hair, dress properly, cook, and not have conversations with yourself out loud. And that it’s unwise to subsist on tea.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been in the final throes of completing a book manuscript and I’ve tried—probably not always successfully—to maintain at least a semblance of normal, civilised behaviour, but tea has remained a constant. It’s a kind of writing comfort blanket; a small routine in the middle of anxious typing. In some ways, then, it was a misfortune to be in the United States for much of this period. I could drink as much excellent coffee as I could cope with, but tea? Good strong, hot black tea? Until I discovered a branch of TeaHaus in Ann Arbor, not so much.

I know that I’m not the first to complain about the difficulty of finding a decent cup of black tea in the US, and, to some extent, this belief that Americans don’t understand hot tea is something of a misnomer. Teavana, Argo, and Teahaus all attest to an enthusiasm—an apparently growing enthusiasm—for well-made tea. I’ve never encountered so many different kinds of tea in supermarkets. (And, truly, Celestial Seasonings is the best name for a brand of tea.) But it is true, I think, that it’s hard to find really good black tea in the average café. While this is probably linked to the fact that most tea drunk in the US is iced tea, it’s also because tea in these establishments is made with hot—not boiling—water. This is crucial. Tea leaves need to steep in freshly boiled water.



This aversion to boiling water can be traced back to a 1994 civil case: Liebeck vs McDonald’s Restaurants. Two years previously, Stella Liebeck, an elderly Albuquerque resident, had spilled a cup of boiling hot coffee over her lap. She sued McDonald’s, and was awarded initially $2.7 million in punitive damages. While for some, the case has become emblematic of the madness of a litigious legal system, the truth is considerably more complex. Not only had Liebeck suffered third degree burns—resulting in extensive reconstructive work and long stays in hospital—but she and her family only sued McDonald’s as a last resort. When their reasonable request that McDonald’s cover her medical bills was turned down, they decided to go to court. Moreover, in the end, Liebeck received considerably less than $2.7 million: the judge reduced that sum to $480,000, and she was awarded, eventually, between $400,000 and $600,000 in an out of court settlement with McDonald’s.

This was not, then, a frivolous lawsuit. But it was interpreted as such, and became one of the examples cited in efforts to reform tort law—the legislation which allows people to sue others in the case of injury to themselves or their property—in the US. As some lawyers argue, the tort reform lobby led by Republicans isn’t really to reduce the numbers of lawsuits submitted by greedy people, but, rather, an attempt to protect business from having to pay for its mistakes.

For tea drinkers, though, this misperception (fanned by tort reform campaigners) has resulted in tepid, unpleasant cups of tea. Concerned about similar lawsuits, restaurants now serve hot—rather than boiling—water. But perhaps there is a kind of poetic—or historical—logic to having to search high and low for decent tea in the US. The chests of tea tipped into Boston’s harbour in 1773 was both in defiance of the Tea Act and a rejection of Britain’s right to tax the thirteen colonies. When patriots switched to coffee—indeed some refused even to eat the fish caught in or near the harbour on the grounds that they could have consumed some of the tea—it was in defiance of British rule. In the land of the free, shouldn’t tea be hard to come by? This association of coffee and freedom wasn’t new, even then. Coffee houses in eighteenth-century Britain and Europe were places where middle-class men could gather to talk and think. The work of the Enlightenment was done, to some extent, over cups of coffee. But coffee was produced on slave plantations and coffee houses—and the freedoms discussed in them—were largely for white men. Coffee represented, then, freedom of the few.

Like so many people recently, I’ve been thinking about the historical contexts which produced the principles on which liberal democracies are founded. Freedom of expression and of thought, freedom to gather, freedom of religious belief are fundamental to the functioning of liberal democracies. Regardless of the fact that these principles were originated during a period in which they applied mainly to white men—and regardless of the fact that they have not prevented injustices from being committed (sometimes in their name) in liberal democracies—these remain the best, albeit imperfect, protection of the greatest number of freedoms for the greatest number of people.

To suggest that they are somehow a western invention inapplicable to other parts of the world would be an enormous insult to Egypt’s cartoonists who continue to criticise successive oppressive governments despite risking potential imprisonment or worse; to Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who received the first fifty of a thousand lashes last Friday, for writing in support of free expression; to the Kenyan MPs who last year so strongly opposed a new security bill which will dramatically curb journalists’ ability to report freely. Also, it would be a profound insult to the vast majority of Muslim people in France and elsewhere—members of a diverse and varied faith—who managed to cope with the fact that Charlie Hebdo and other publications ran cartoons which insulted or poked fun at Islam.

Whether you think that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were amusing or clever or blasphemous or racist, is besides the point. Free speech and free expression were no more responsible for the killings in France last week than they were for the murder of more than two thousand people in Nigeria by Boko Haram. This isn’t to argue that we shouldn’t discuss—loudly, freely, rudely—how right or wrong it was to publish these cartoons in a society which many feel has strongly Islamaphobic and racist elements—in the same way we should debate potentially misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, or transphobic writing, art, or speech too. But to begin to suggest that there are times when we shouldn’t criticise and satirise, is to suggest that there should be limits to what we may think and imagine.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 07.01.2015

  • The only way to improve health overall is to eradicate poverty.
  • Diet fizzy drinks may increase calorie intake.
  • Against fetishising home-cooked meals.
  • Flying pigs in China.
  • Britain’s bumper cherry crop.
  • Why is brisket so expensive in the US?
  • The EU’s Ecodesign directive and drinking coffee.
  • Italy’s small food producers are struggling.
  • ‘Any diet that suggests cutting out food groups or components of food – such as gluten or actual solids – for the purpose of losing weight is, unless prescribed by an actual doctor, absolute nonsense.’
  • A mushroom that eats plastic.
  • Houses out of rice.
  • Aldi arrives in the US.
  • ‘Now, we will eat knowledge.’
  • The soup kitchen’s piano players.
  • A history of nutrition guidelines through butter.
  • Farm food is not necessarily fresh food.
  • The end of brown sauce?
  • Beef tongue is big in Japan.
  • Giving up fine dining.
  • The French Laundry and Thomas Jefferson.
  • What to eat in Melbourne.
  • How to toast marshmallows over an active volcano.
  • How to use up leftover egg yolks.
  • How to brew coffee at home.
  • Rethinking familiar ingredients.
  • Popsicle cakes.
  • What to do with kohlrabi.
  • Indian spices in colonial America.
  • Damson and gin sorbet.
  • The joy of boiled eggs.
  • Georgians and hot chocolate.
  • What’s Cooking at Columbia.
  • The bulletproof coffee diet.
  • An egg marking attachment for hens. (Thanks, mum!)
  • A guide to grapefruit.
  • A history of New York subway vending machines.
  • The difference between stock and broth.
  • Britain’s best breakfasts.
  • ‘My pressing concern was not what it tasted like, but how to get it out of my mouth.’
  • Recreating ancient drinks.
  • Selections from the files of a shuttered community hospital or copy from a farm-to-table restaurant menu?


I spent much of my time in Ann Arbor in coffee shops, writing. Having conquered my guilt at working in cafes, occupying space which could be filled by more paying customers (truly, a Calvinist education never really leaves you), I embraced America, the land of the free Wifi. One of my favourite places for working was Mighty Good Coffee, a relatively new shop and café on North Main Street—about a three minute walk on the diagonal from Kerrytown—which is bright and airy and friendly, with lovely coffee and a fridge full of yoghurt.

It also sells artisanal toast. Curious, I tried first a slice of ten seed loaf (good), and then returned with friends and ordered sourdough with cherry jam (very good indeed). But what sets artisanal toast apart from ordinary toast? Was it made by elves, as a friend asked acerbically on Facebook? As far as I could see, this was particularly nice bread, toasted in a fairly fancy toaster, served with rather special butter and jam. But for slightly more than $3.

My—and, I think, other people’s—interest in Ann Arbor’s first (possibly?) instance of artisanal toast was piqued by an article published by the Pacific Standard early last year. In it, John Gravois traces the origins of the artisan toast vogue to San Francisco and the Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club and, more specifically, to its owner, Giulietta Carrelli. The café is, as she comments, her way of coping with bouts of recurring mental illness: it provides structure, stability, and a support network, and it serves food which comforts. Gravois explains: ‘She put toast on the menu because it reminded her of home: “I had lived so long with no comfort,” she says.’

What could easily have been a story about hipsters selling the most ordinary of ordinary breakfast foods for outrageous sums of money becomes, then, a quite moving account of a young woman’s strategies for dealing with, at times, debilitating episodes of mania and psychosis. But, as Gravois notes, her decision to include toast on Trouble’s—otherwise eccentric—menu was picked up by other, more typically hipster San Francisco cafes where artisanal toast became another marker—alongside drip coffee, beards, lumberjack shirts—of hipsterdom.

Artisanal toast: ten seed loaf, blueberry jam.

Artisanal toast: ten seed loaf, cherry jam.

At the same time as I tried Mighty Good’s toast, commentators were outraged by the latest artisanal craze: ice. Large, dense, clear cubes of ice for artisanal cocktails—mixed with homemade or small batch bitters, liqueurs, and sodas—which fit better into glasses and melt more slowly. But, as Mother Jones reported, manufacturing, transporting, and storing artisanal ice is hugely energy inefficient. It is done at some cost to the environment.

In these terms, ‘artisanal’ means handmade and small scale—it means paying attention to the production of otherwise mass-produced or mundane items like toast or ice or bread or beer or crisps. There is something innately ridiculous in elevating toasted bread to the status of cult object. The enthusiasm for the artisanal is, to be kind, an attempt to reclaim the ‘authentic’ (whatever that may be) in the face of a wholly industrialised food chain, and, to be less kind, as much of a fashion as brogues, topknots, and foraging.

It’s useful to use artisanal toast—for instance—to explore what we understand by irony. Hipsters are accused routinely—and I used ‘accuse’ deliberately—of dressing, eating, reading, thinking, and of being ironically. In an essay for the New York Times, the philosopher and literary scholar Christy Wampole writes:

Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.

Hipsters’ knowing adoption of the unfashionable, old-fashioned, and the obscure is, she argues, a form of irony: this is an appropriation of a set of markers but no real commitment to what they signify.

I would tend to disagree with Wampole—on this point and her broader argument about living without irony (and her confusion of hipster and millennial)—because I’m not entirely sure that irony is the defining characteristic of hipsterdom. The embrace of the artisanal, hipsters’ enthusiasm for recovering forgotten recipes and fashions, their opposition to the corporate and the mass produced (generally—some brands like Apple seem to be immune to this), and even the strain of literary seriousness which runs through some iterations of hipsterdom, seem to me to denote seriousness, even earnestness. Occasionally, this tips into twee, as Judy Berman observes:

twee is anti-greed and suspicious of an adult world that revolves around avarice. More importantly, twee is aware of humanity’s capacity for violence and evil, but chooses to be optimistic about human nature nonetheless. This could be a progressive stance—one that not only believes we’re capable of improvement but works toward it. In practice, though, twee politics too often prescribe escapism and isolation, allowing the privileged to respond to crises both global and personal by sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, ‘Na na na, can’t hear you!’

If being a hipster was predicated only on irony—on not taking any of this seriously—then it would be difficult to establish cafes, shops, literary journals, and other enterprises dedicated to the small scale, the cool, and the exclusive. In fact, what much of the writing on hipsterdom misses is that it is precisely this: exclusive. It is a subculture of the (upper) middle classes. For all the fact that young hipsters have colonised historically poor parts of cities, being a hipster is expensive. Organic vegetable boxes, iPhones, copies of n+1, and fixed gear bicycles aren’t cheap.

Much of hipsters’ political and social cluelessness stems from their position of privilege. And here it’s worth thinking more about hipsters’ politics. For all that I think most hipsters would label themselves progressives, there is a strangely libertarian strand within, particularly, hipster attitudes towards food. This connection between some kinds of right wing politics and a return to the land is by no means unusual or new. Most recently, the locavore movement—in its suspicion of big business and agriculture which bleeds into a suspicion of big government—has been taken up by libertarians in some red states in the US. But I think for some hipsters, learning the skills of rural living—learning self-sufficiency—has been produced by the profound economic and social uncertainty of the past decade or so. It is no coincidence that hipsterdom emerged at around the same time as the 2008 crash. Dana Goodyear describes a feast she attends in Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture:

Jonathan, a strawberry-blonde roaster at an artisanal coffee shop in Orange County, espoused a more complex view. Late in history, with America’s institutions crumbling around them, he and his friends felt mistrustful, even paranoid. They had retreated into Home Ec, believing that if the worst were to happen, at least they’d know how to pickle their own vegetables. ‘Our generation feels lost,’ he said. ‘We’re wanting to be self-sufficient.’

The parallels between hipsters and their parents’ generation—the Baby Boomers—are particularly evident here. Hippies’ enthusiasm for homesteading and green living, their rediscovery of lost crafts and skills was partly a reaction against the growth of the corporate, but it also signalled a profound lack of faith in mainstream society, something only amplified by the environmental and economic crises of the 1970s.

My point is that if we understand hipster earnestness as both a product of privilege as well as crisis, it helps to rethink the position of irony within hipsterdom. It becomes, then, a means of establishing a line between those who understand the irony, and those who don’t. Irony is a boundary marker, but it does not constitute what it means to be a hipster. Secondly, it also helps to illuminate the politics of hipsterdom. However seriously meant, a reclaiming of old fashioned forms of cooking and preserving, an interest in old recipes, and a commitment to organic and free range food does not necessarily signal progressive politics. If anything, these are interests and pursuits of the leisured and the moneyed. To what extent are hipsters a manifestation of inequality?

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