Artisans are Crafting Cultural Identity

Artisanal And Authentic, The Flavors Of The New Year

This NPR story highlights the upsurge in popularity of locally made and crafted items, foods and other items such as fiber and baked-goods that are procured and created fresh from local farms.

We have seen this rise in popularity here in our own community, with groups such as the Southern Tier Farm Artisans, a group formed of local artisans and crafts people exhibiting their products and demonstrating their tools and techniques at local events.  These events are well-attended by the public, with many interested patrons eager to learn about crafts that are fast disappearing from our society.

The term “Artisan” has an interesting connotation.  To me it calls to mind uniquely hand-crafted items, the very opposite if the mass-produced, look-alike items one finds at the shopping mall.  Artisan items are not one-size-fits-all.  They are not all exactly the same size, shape and hue.  They are not predictable.  They come from time-tested methods of production, family secrets passed down for generations, some closely guarded.  They are made from what’s available in the landscape of their particular area, what is at hand at the time, from what this particular season will offer.  Artisans items tell a story, have a history behind them, and carry the Energy of the person or people who worked so hard to bring them to fruition.

In the past, the many towns, villages, and regions peppering the countryside used to take great pride in being different from one another.  Many of the cheeses of Europe were named after the town from which they came, and the authenticity was a cherished part of their culture.  Stilton, Cheddar, and Emmenthal were well-known, along with a multitude of lesser-know but much-loved varieties each as unique a town’s own zip code.  Friendly rivalries between regions were part of yearly celebrations.  Quality wines also shared this distinction, each named after the region of their birth, and appellation is strictly controlled.  The same goes for honey, maple syrup, and seasonal jams.  Each jar tells the story of the landscape from which they were produced.

The outside observer might find the multitude of choices overwhelming, not quite the “Big Three” we’re used to today.  But one key reason for this variety is the very basic fact that each treasured creation is not meant to be liked by everybody.   They are not exactly what everybody likes. Particularity is welcome.  You can pick your favorite.  Or your favorite today.  We have become accustomed to our choices being significantly narrowed by what the mainstream market wants to sell us, and along with this, we are whitewashed as a culture to the point where we are all supposed to like (or be seen consuming) all the same things.  The Joneses set the tone, we are all supposed to “keep up”.  What used to be a glorious rainbow of individual tastes and preferences had been blended and re-blended until we are left with the very predictable shade of purple-puce that results from mixing all your paint colors. This rekindled interest in the unique and discernible is a backlash against all this muddling.

So keep in mind when you visit the farmers market or your local bakery or micro-brewery that what they are going to offer you will not  be what you’re used to.  That’s why you are there.  Artisan bread is very far from Wonder bread.  Or even the “Artisan” breads offered at your local grocery.  A good micro-brewed Stout will not taste like Beck’s Dark.  A good artisan-crafted jar of fruit jam is nothing  like Smucker’s.  They will be singularly sensual experiences, taking us back to the true roots and meaning of the foods we have carried with us through all these generations.  You may even encounter something that does not suit your taste.  But your neighbor will like it, you can agree to disagree and that is OK.  And together you keep your favorite crafters in business.

It is this uniqueness of our particular landscape that sets us apart from the next region and what gives us our own cultural identification.  America’s mass-market culture is trying to put all the same stores and plazas in every corner of the globe, so that to a stranger driving from one community to the next, the towns all look the same from the Interstate.  Only by identifying and supporting our region’s natural gifts will we solidify our own cultural individuality.  And our signature “flavor” is what visitors will experience and come to expect when visiting from other regions.

So make a point in this your New Year to find your own favorite Artisan producers in your area. Get off the beaten-path a little to find those unique little shops where they are still doing it “the old-fashioned way” and not only turning out some great product but also preserving a piece of the past.  And be prepared:  You may encounter something that you do not like.  You may, in fact, find something you absolutely love!


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