Skip to content

Ironically

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?

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

85 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on marcojmossi.

    February 16, 2015
  2. I appreciate the attempt to create a parallel between the Baby Boomers and hipsters. I’m not at all convinced that parallel works…..not if you know about North American history and social revolution.

    I am a Baby Boomer, daughter of a poor immigrant Chinese parents in Canada with 6 children. I am the oldest. I grew up with watching tv and seeing newspaper headlines for black civil rights movement in the U.S. (Martin Luther King),…it was my generation inspired by the black activists, that fired up the Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians on development of their arts that spoke of their experiences in North America, their histories…and belonging to non-profit organizations to force government policies to change for immigrant services, more inclusive immigration policies, change school curriculum from British dominant history to history that was multicultural (in Canada), etc.

    It was the 1970’s where feminism, MS magazine and all that took huge steps for women to work in all sorts of careers/professions full-time for the whole of their working life, gains in maternity benefit, etc. When affirmative action hiring programs were implemented. I know because I was part of it… So baby boomer women lived different lives than hipsters: they were forging the equality path for the hipsters! They are your careerbound mothers of hipster adult children.

    So social revolution paved the way to the next level for…..hipster group to take over. If I can use that hipster term. Hipster group, I agree may be trying to redefine self-sufficiency with the privilege of going back to wasteful ways of grocery shopping vs. long term hardship of growing food.

    The good thing is that the do-it-yourself movement has rejuvenated gardening, sewing, food canning, by the “privileged” , etc.activities seen as grandparents’ doddery, uncool activities to being good, relevant for 21st century. If this activity resurgence is carried on by same people for next 50 years, excellent!

    February 16, 2015
    • Oh I agree – the parallel only works to some extent, particularly because hipsters’ lives have been, in many ways, so much easier than their parents’. But I think it’s also worth noting – without, obviously, discounting your experiences – that only a very small proportion of boomers were involved in the civil rights and women’s lib movements. This was the generation which voted Thatcher and Reagan into power. Equally, it’s true that a small number of hipsters are hugely involved in current political and green movements. Occupy is to this generation what Greenham Common and, earlier than that, Stonewall and the Vietnam protests were to Boomers.
      -Sarah

      February 16, 2015
    • Happy to read, inspiring. Thanks.

      February 17, 2015
  3. such a fresh view on hipsterdom. Cohesive, really thought-provoking. Thanks!

    February 16, 2015
  4. Reblogged this on Stk2010.

    February 17, 2015
  5. Love your insights and great photography. Keep rockin.

    February 17, 2015
  6. definitely an interesting view, I liked how you pointed out the similarities between being a hipster and being a hippie.. I feel like in some ways a hipster is just the next evolution from the baby boomer turned hippie, who has perhaps realised such idealism as is embodied by prescribing to being a hippie is not possible and has turned to irony and cynicism as a coping mechanism. I am not sure if that makes a whole much of sense, but I really enjoyed reading this nonetheless!

    February 17, 2015
    • It does! And I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.
      -Sarah

      February 17, 2015
  7. Your post makes me feel nostalgic for what used to be a charming, yet hip hole-in-the-wall in Sacramento called “Old Soul.” When they first opened, they were coffee roasters who “sold” their coffee for donations. The atmosphere changed a little when they went commercial, but the coffee remained the same. I live 3000 miles away now and often miss that place. Your post made me think of it. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    February 17, 2015
  8. A really enjoyable read (on my iPhone, over Colombian coffee brought from Colombia by a friend, organic cereal with soy yogurt and blueberries) 🙂 I’m living in Hackney in North East London at the moment, the land of hipsterdom, and this really made me smile.

    February 17, 2015
    • Good grief, yes – Hackney is really the best place in which to read this. So glad you like the post 🙂
      -Sarah

      February 17, 2015
  9. Reblogged this on The city of adventure and commented:
    Some really interesting thoughts. Up next, an international comparative study of hipsterness.

    February 17, 2015
  10. Tasty toasty … ! Ta for a good read!

    February 17, 2015
  11. Love this… Could not stop thinking how the power of a ‘good’ piece of toast and jam cannot be underestimated. Time for breakfast….

    February 17, 2015
  12. Reblog on adysrivastav61

    February 17, 2015
  13. Hey amazin! Agree on everything honestly.. Am hungry hahh ✌️😁really thoughtfully wrote

    February 17, 2015
  14. Great Insights 💗

    February 17, 2015
  15. Vijit Malviya #

    Its just written so good! Nice post. Enjoyed reading it

    February 17, 2015
  16. Next – let’s really delve into the difference between hipster and twee. Feminism vs feminization.

    February 17, 2015
  17. Reblogged this on lellone.

    February 17, 2015
  18. Oh this twanged my strings. Pour over coffee is also a remnant of the old days of late 70’s, before the name pour over even existed. Doesn’t anyone remember? Why is this all so new and so precious? Why do we want to pay so much for it? Why aren’t we sitting in our kitchens with our toast and coffee? It’s as if we want to be totally cut off from our bodies by living for hours in a virtual world, then pay others to create our toast and coffee for us. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, where a slave class bred babies for the rulers. We are breeding elite, elegant, overpriced artisinal thises and thats for people who cannot be separated for a minute from a cell phone. I sound like a crazy lady, but it seems there is no middle ground… just increasingly expensive scenarios to enable people to feel more real. Thanks so much for pointing out the hipster/hippie parallels.

    February 17, 2015
  19. I feel like people are going wild with the “hipster” term. There are loads of people, I am learning, who are using the phrase to mean a whole helluva lot more than I ever knew! So far as it concerns me… it’s really only a fashion style. Period.

    February 18, 2015
  20. Madison #

    Very thought provoking article and being a young adult in the 21st century, surrounded by a culture of lumberjack shirts, big glasses, and expensive organic food, this article really speaks to me and I like how you meditate on different angles of the” hipster” generation. An accurate article. Great job!

    February 18, 2015
  21. wendon74 #

    Reblogged this on Progressive Rubber Boots.

    February 18, 2015
  22. In the UK we call that dish ‘prison toast.’ Thank you for the read. I recall the very early days of this movement – a colleague in tweed, trombone and monocle. Then I confused myself with hipsters and steampunks for a month or two. Now I am nearly up to speed. I shall research millenials.

    Surely through, writing in coffee shops is all a little bit wet, ripe for parody.

    February 18, 2015
    • Well, in the absence of anywhere else to work, needs must.

      Millennials = people born between 1978/1980 and 1994.
      -Sarah

      February 18, 2015
  23. “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.”

    Really interesting points you made in this article. It gave me pause to consider my perceptions of hipsters and their use of irony. Having attended a small liberal arts college for a while a few years back, the discussion about “hipsters” was pervasive, which is ironic in and of itself because every privilieged hipster on that campus spoke such disdainful things about “those damn hipsters” as though they had never ever taken a look at themselves.

    But anyway, I enjoyed this thoughtful discussion about Millenial use of irony.

    February 18, 2015
  24. Reblogged this on thedirtydeedotcom and commented:
    Honestly, before reading this article I definitely was very critical of hipsterdom and did very little to understand the variations of ignorance within the “culture” – after reading, while I still believe there is a large portion of the group searching for approval rather than genuine interest, I honestly do believe that hipster “habits” have contributed to bettering society as a whole!

    February 18, 2015
  25. Didn’t Alanis Morrissette once sing about ironic artisanal toast? Great post, and congratulations on being Freshly Toasted. Oops, my bad, I mean, Freshly Pressed.

    February 19, 2015
  26. LucyBre #

    Wow, hipster toast. That’s a new one, but it sure sounds lovely!

    February 19, 2015
  27. themindlessmusings #

    This was really interesting to read. Well written!

    February 19, 2015
  28. Oi segui de volta . Beijos

    February 20, 2015
  29. Learned some new things about “artisanal” thanks for that and now I want to go to Ann Arbor!

    February 21, 2015
    • You should always go to Ann Arbor 🙂 It’s a wonderful place.
      -Sarah

      February 22, 2015
  30. Reblogged this on fictionssszzz.

    February 21, 2015
  31. cheerythunder #

    An interesting read, but mostly, it made me really crave toast. I recently moved into a new apartment (5 months ago, is that even recent anymore?) My new roomates didn’t have a toaster and I haven’t bought one yet. Must do so immediately and go buy jam!!

    February 21, 2015
    • You’ll notice that the post is a response to that article.
      -Sarah

      February 22, 2015
      • Hate to seem foolish, but I had actually missed the paragrapgh that mentioned it when I read it late last night. Kay, must stop reading new articles after 1 am on Saturday nights . . . . .

        February 22, 2015
        • Ha ha! I’ve done exactly the same 🙂
          -Sarah

          February 23, 2015
          • Kay, now I feel more human and less DUH!!!! Thanks muchly 🙂

            May 21, 2015
  32. We now have a new old market in our town of Altrincham where the stalls selling big knickers and crimpolene nightdresses have been replaced by stalls selling organic honey and vintage tea cups.
    Artisanal has arrived big time.
    Seems to me rather more anal than artis, and a rather concerning case of the Emperor’s Clothes. It’s still all just stuff but with a different label. Don’t be sucked in?

    February 22, 2015
  33. Reblogged this on dygdyhfd.

    February 23, 2015
  34. Reblogged this on walrosk's Blog.

    February 23, 2015
  35. M E Cheshier #

    Yes, so true! I am also of the 70’s generation and forged the way for many woman. I was one of the first women firefighters out there. I am so glad to see that all was not in vain and recycling, gardening, etc. is making a comeback! Thanks for the Great post!

    February 23, 2015
    • That’s so amazing that you were a firefighter! I am totally in awe 🙂 (And so glad you like the post.)
      -Sarah

      February 23, 2015
      • M E Cheshier #

        Thank you Sarah! I loved it. But talk about ‘old timers’ many were opposed and I often caught riff raff. It was hard ground to break but well worth the energy! Yes, i like the post very much! 🙂

        February 23, 2015
        • Wow – a heroic choice of occupation in every way.
          -Sarah

          February 23, 2015
          • M E Cheshier #

            You are to kind! I have always had a passion for the woods, traveling and keeping physically fir, plus fire has always fascinated me. I couldn’t go wrong. I am now a Jane of all Trades. 🙂

            February 23, 2015
  36. M E Cheshier #

    Reblogged this on Travels with Mary and commented:
    A must Read!

    February 23, 2015
  37. Reblogged this on disco1959's Blog.

    March 1, 2015
  38. Love that the toast story has generated so many positive responses. It definitely got me thinking about this artisan craze and how it relates to my generation. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head there, especially when it comes to the feeling of uncertainty. I started looking into pickling, baking breads, growing herbs and so on as a reaction to this confusion about commercially produced food. I guess subconsciously I wanted to have at least a bit control over what I consume to bring a bit of security into my life. Thank you for this wonderful post.
    Read my posts on the new year and sqirl los angeles to see my take on the toast thing 🙂
    https://koffeeandcake.wordpress.com/

    March 4, 2015
    • You’re so welcome! I’m really glad the post resonated.
      -Sarah

      March 5, 2015
  39. Great blog! Couldn’t help but giggle at your ability to overcome your guilt of working in a cafe (taking up a paying customer’s seat). I made a webcomic about (sort of) about this the other day on my website themorninghit.com – take a look you might like it. Look at the “9th Morning”. Rob 🙂

    March 5, 2015
  40. Truly interesting connections and comparisons, very well written

    March 5, 2015
  41. Reblogged this on ibilewearsbynyang's Blog.

    March 10, 2015
  42. I have been baking bread sense childhood. The smell wakes up my appetite. Nothing like fresh out of the oven drizzled in butter & honey.
    On rare occasion when there is left over bread (I come from a large family) toast is a lovely delight.

    March 12, 2015
  43. A really profound observation. It’s just that the picture of the toast and jam on the sides, it’s quite similar to what I had this morning. Hey, maybe I’m a new generation of pseudo-hipster.

    March 12, 2015
  44. I really enjoyed reading this and it helped me, a member of the last bits of the baby boomer generation, understand hipsterdom much better! Honestly, even though there are obviously some pretensions, irony, and posing found in the hipster culture, I’ve been delighted to see a resurgence of interest in some of the old-school arts of gardening, cooking, canning, sewing, crafts, etc. I was born late in my parents’ life so I actually grew up with parents who had been farmers, who grew gardens, canned their produce, raised stock, and quite literally did live off the land! Mother sewed nearly all my clothes as I was growing up. I learned how to pinch a penny so tightly it squeaked. These skills have helped me immensely as I raised my own children. Add to that my benefitting from the women’s lib movement and other progressive movements, and I feel like I’ve lived in the “sweet spot” of generations, completely through chance. I’m too old to be a hipster and too young to be a hippie. I was raised by very conservative, old-fashioned parents, but am a progressive myself. I think people overall, regardless of their economic circumstances, background, or education MUST think things through more and make their choices for lifestyle based on independent thought and true beliefs rather than following a generational mindset. Anyhow, I’ve rambled long enough. In brief, I really enjoyed your post and appreciate the skill and thought put into writing it.

    March 18, 2015
  45. I loved this post. This is my first time here and I have to say it was so well written and spot on. Very of the times and definitely is going to keep me as a follower. Being that I went to art school in Los Angeles, I have been emersed into the hipster population and have found that sometimes it is a struggle to keep up with how expensive it has become to be “cool.” I agree completely with your views and thank you for the awesome post!

    March 19, 2015
  46. Reblogged this on todaysdiywoman.

    April 4, 2015
  47. Love this… a nice sideways glance. Cynically many years ago, I created an alter-ego called Habitat Hilary who would be such a “hipster” little did I know that years later, the world would be awash with such people… but then it takes all sorts to make a world and I would change that for, well the world 🙂

    May 14, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Gazette 01/2015 | Bad Vinaigrette
  2. Gazette February 2015 | Bad Vinaigrette
  3. Weekend Wrap-up: killing your best writing, dissecting the hipster (and toast), anthemic writing manifestos, and more | breakfast with words
  4. Failing at being a hipster without even trying. Or: First of the myriad of London tribes to which I don’t belong | The city of adventure

All comments, criticism, and ideas welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: