I recently ate a bowl of Early Bird’s Farmhand’s Choice granola with milk for breakfast. The bag cost me $9, but with its judicious sweet-savory use of olive oil, salt, and pecans, it was distractingly tasty. A couple of weeks later, I buy a bag of Early Bird’s Jubilee Recipe (cherries and pistachios) and a bag of its Choc-A-Doodle-Doo (chocolate and coconut). They are even better. I buy a second bag of Jubilee. Then a second bag of Choc-A-Doodle-Doo. I’m in deep now.
I cherish the little pouches atop my refrigerator, with their rustic-urban design of a colorful bird, stalk of wheat in its beak, flying over a cityscape. Because the granola is “gathered in Brooklyn,” I can take pride in supporting local manufacturing (local mixing, anyway). The organic rolled oats and organic pumpkin seeds and organic coconut and organic brown sugar pleasingly affirm my endorsement of sustainable farming practices. The use of whole ingredients, slow roasting, and “tiny batches” testifies to my discerning appreciation of the artisan and to my rejection of the industrial food system. The dried sour cherries and salt and extra-virgin olive oil prove the sophistication of my palate: I am beyond the easy pleasures of butter and unadulterated sweetness. I don’t do yoga, but if I did, I am reassured to read on the pouch that a recommended occasion for enjoying the granola is when I’m “striking warrior pose.” And by buying this granola, a sticker informs me, I am “giving to GLSEN, an anti-bullying organization.” I know $9 is a lot to pay, but this isn’t just food.
At the same time, taken together, the artisan products, and particularly their packaging, can give you the willies. With all that label cross talk—We’re more Brooklyn than thou! More handcrafted! More “consciously” sourced!—we get more than we barter for. You only think you’re just buying a jar of artisan pickles. Suddenly, by association, you’re one of those people packing a ukulele into your $130 Fjällräven rucksack, swinging by Bierkraft to pick up a growler of Flying Dog Raging Bitch Belgian IPA, and riding the G to Greenpoint to take part in a late-night hootenanny in a former stapler factory. But what if you’re not one of those people? Or actually, what if you are one of those people, and one of the things that makes you one of those people is your acute allergy to feeling like one of any kind of people? Maybe you believe bullying is bad, and appreciate the virtues of yoga, and are a moderately environmentally responsible citizen, but you also feel uncomfortable having something in your shopping cart that is ostentatiously palimpsested with as many political slogans as a seventies guitar case. And as great as those pickles may taste, maybe you find it kind of objectively embarrassing, and possibly inexcusable, to spend $14 on them. Maybe. But that granola is pretty fucking awesome.
There is the twee comedy of eating Brooklynishly, and then there’s the twee sincerity of producing Brooklynishly: wide-eyed entrepreneurs slogging through the nitty-gritty of business-building. The word artisan, shopworn as it may be, is usually not, actually, an affectation.
One product By Brooklyn used to carry was Maiden Preserves jam. It came in a beautiful jar. Alison Roman and Eva Scofield were co-workers at the Williamsburg outpost of Momofuku Milk Bar, the David Chang dessertery. Roman was a sous-chef; Scofield’s job title was “Etc.” Both were itching to do something on their own, and when Milk Bar got its own table at the Brooklyn Flea, Kings County’s favorite artisanal trading post, in early 2011, chef Christina Tosi said that any employees with their own project could sell through the Milk Bar table. “I said, ‘Let’s make jam,’ ” Roman remembers. “ ‘Wouldn’t it be cool?’ ” Tosi let them use the Milk Bar kitchen during off-hours, and each of the women kicked in a couple of hundred dollars for ingredients and materials. “We came up with a name and got everything together fast,” Roman says. “We were flying by the seat of our pants.”
They were going to make jam differently. They would use fresh organic fruit and make all the jam themselves. They would offer unusual flavors: vanilla-lemon, grapefruit-hibiscus. Most of all, Roman had her heart set on using one particular jar, a sublime amalgam of glass, rubber, and steel made by a German company called Weck. They were expensive—$1.85 wholesale per jar, compared with others costing about 60 cents each—but Roman and Scofield figured the jars would differentiate their product. “They’re very well-made, adorable, and crazy expensive,” Roman says.
Everything seemed to go well at first. The jam was delicious. The packaging was lovely. The women retailed their jam for $7, until people told them they should charge more and they raised the price to $9. “ ‘Handmade in Brooklyn with local fruit’—that’s all you had to say for some people,” Scofield says. “They’d say, ‘We’ll take eight.’ ” Williamsburg retailer Bedford Cheese Shop picked them up. The Vanderbilt, a fashionable bar and restaurant in Prospect Heights, started using their jam in a cocktail after Scofield, coming in for her shift as a waitress, gave a jar to the bartender. West Elm wanted to carry them. Gilt Groupe asked for samples. The women were navigating a well-trod artisan path from hobbyist daydream to entrepreneurial venture, seeming to slalom effortlessly between Brooklyn’s small-is-good ideology and the growth imperative.