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