Brewers, Bakers, & Beef-Jerky Makers
A few members of the tribe.
Listening to Rick talk, it’s easy to be seduced by the vision: a world, or at least a borough, where thousands of salvaged-teak schooners ply the oceans, or at least the Gowanus Canal, bearing Mason jars full of marmalade made from windfall kumquats. It’s like a child’s dream. The supermarket aisles are lit by Edison bulbs, staffed by scruffy men in butcher’s aprons, and stocked with cruelty-free dog food and hand-pulped toilet paper. But wait: Should the TP come from new-growth forests (more environmentally correct) or old-growth (more authentic)? Those lightbulbs are beautiful, but aren’t they inefficient? If small batch goes global, how will the idiosyncrat perform this pageant of superior taste? (By embracing Wal-Mart-scale production as a “retro” counterculture?) And is there really a mass market for $9 chutney? In other words, can twee scale? And if it can, and we do find ourselves hurtling toward this nightmarish Brooklandia, is it still okay to like those serrano pepper and “vanilla & smoke” chocolate bars?
By Brooklyn is a small shop that opened last April on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens with the mission of selling only products made in Kings County. Among the store’s inventory, made by some 120 different vendors, are $29 “reclaimed slate” cheese boards from the Red Hook–based Brooklyn Slate Company and wee $58 terrariums from a Dumbo company called Undiscovered Worlds.
The store itself is a kind of walk-through diorama, a snow-globe fantasy of New Brooklyn in miniature—the boroughwide artisan arms race stuffed into a storefront. There’s packaging featuring vaguely Victorian typefaces, and scents and flavors that seem simultaneously retro and contemporary: P&H Soda Co.’s lovage soda syrup, Liddabit Sweets’ beer-and-pretzel caramels, Salty Road’s bergamot saltwater taffy. There is Clinton Hill–based Early Bird granola (“gathered in Brooklyn”); Park Slope–based Brooklyn Hard Candy (“handcrafted in Brooklyn”); Gowanus-based Brooklyn Brine Co. pickles (“proudly hand-packed in Brooklyn”); and Greenpoint-based Anarchy in a Jar jam (“made with love in Brooklyn”). As much as these are variations on a theme, they’re also a theater of marketing one-upmanship. “Small-batch” Jam Stand jam from Red Hook is displayed near “very small batch” Bittermens bitters from Dumbo and that Early Bird granola, which is baked in “tiny batches.” Clearly, small is the new big. This is packaging that, as much as telling you what you’re buying, is telling you who you are—a Brooklynite of a sort scarcely imaginable ten years ago. A Breuckelenite, let’s say.
This is not the Brooklyn on your map but a notional place consisting mainly of the western “creative crescent” that arcs from Greenpoint south to Gowanus and runs on freelance design work and single-origin, crop-to-cup pour-over coffee. It’s the Brooklyn where bodegas stock Fentimans “botanically brewed” Dandelion & Burdock soda and where the Dumbo headquarters of crafting juggernaut Etsy has air ducts literally, no joke, swaddled in crocheted cozies. It’s not the Brooklyn of Brownsville, East Flatbush, Ocean Park, Canarsie. By Brooklyn owner Gaia DiLoreto, a 37-year-old former IT worker, is black and wants to be “a role model to young black women,” she tells me. She had one intern from East New York who “knew nothing about artisanal food. An $8 candy bar was insane to her.”
Fortunately for DiLoreto, there’s a robust audience for whom that candy bar is the very apex of civilization. Area code 718 romantics love to see their hometown’s name every time they pull something out of the fridge, to pretend a borough of 2.5 million people is a small English village, to partake of a Shop Class As Soulcraft authenticity that’s missing in their Twitter-addled, cubicle-drone lives, and to reassure themselves that Brooklyn is more “real” than Manhattan and not just an annex with shorter buildings. Sightseers from 212 are equally avid buyers: salving their one percent class angst, signaling their membership in the elite tribe of ethical aesthetes, shoring up their idea of Brooklyn as that exotic but taxi-accessible place where all the kooky artists and kids live and create stuff for the adults in Manhattan who actually make the world go around. And then there are the tourists who compose half of DiLoreto’s business. “Everyone loves Brooklyn,” she says. “That’s the place everyone wants to be, to have a part of, to be a part of. I want to do everything I can to leverage that.”
You don’t hear words like leverage coming out of many of the artisans’ mouths, and at a time when we’re learning about the “pink slime” used as filler in public-school hamburgers, you can’t resist applauding the impulse to reject the industrial status quo—to make fresher, healthier, better-tasting food, to take entrepreneurial risks and seek meaning in one’s work. But it’s equally hard to avoid the sense that the new Brooklyn economy is moss growth in the shade of larger corporate forces. Plutocrats of a certain stripe like their baubles to come with meaningful, brow-furrowing backstories, and the artisans, with their small-scale production and deliberate inefficiencies and expensive ingredients, need the postindustrial wealthy to buy their $14 pickles and $10 granola. The buyer of $9 jam, after all, isn’t another maker of $9 jam. It’s the guy whose multinational robotic assembly line spits out jars of $1 jam. Or it’s his trustafarian son, the Global Jam Logistics heir. Or it’s the private-equity guy who just offshored GJL to a sweatshop in Bangalore.