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The White Lies of Craft Culture

How the world of small batch, single origin, and totally artisanal erases the people of color who made it possible

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Last fall, the chef Sean Brock and brewmaster Ryan Coker of Revelry Brewing unveiled a collaboration called Amber Waves, a malt liquor made with locally sourced ingredients and grains reflective “of the 19th-century South.” The “historically accurate heritage grain” malt liquor, whose name derives from the lyric in “America the Beautiful,” comes in a bottle that’s wrapped in the iconic brown paper bag, which is stamped with a blue corn logo and comes tastefully pre-unrolled. Sold in a modest 22-ounce portion, rather than the 40-ounce size that the malt liquor is known for, a bottle runs $29, or more than $1.30 an ounce.

Outlets like Modern Farmer have praised Brock and Coker for “successfully elevating this bottom-shelf booze to small-batch status,” a rhetorical sleight of hand that both conceals and dramatizes its racial subtext: “Bottom shelf” is code for corner store and drunk on a dime, for poverty and homelessness, and for the black and brown communities who’ve made the beverage a part of hip-hop and hood culture; “small-batch status” and “heritage grain” signifies the antithesis of the former — something artful and refined. By evoking the 19th-century South — an era when slavery and indentured servitude thrived — Amber Waves transforms hood to urbane.

Amber Waves and its act of historical transfiguration are typical products of what might be loosely labeled as “craft culture,” which has, over the last two decades, radically reshaped how the richer swaths of America think about what they eat and drink, and how those things were produced. Craft culture has seeped into cities and spread throughout the country, bearing the fruits of bean-to-bar chocolate and traditional butchery and single-barrel whiskey; ancient-grain breads and heritage-breed pigs and heirloom corn and $8 mayo and $12 ice cream; local honey and local beer and local pickles. Craft culture fetishizes the authentic, the traditionally produced, and the specific; it loathes the engineered, the mass-produced, and the originless.

Craft culture looks like white people. The founders, so many former lawyers or bankers or advertising execs, tend to be white, the front-facing staff in their custom denim aprons tend to be white, the clientele sipping $10 beers tends to be white. Craft culture tells mostly white stories for mostly white consumers, and they nearly always sound the same: It begins somewhere remote-sounding like the mountains of Cottonwood, Idaho, or someplace quirky like a basement in Fort Collins, Colorado, or a loft in Brooklyn, where a (white) artisan, who has a vision of back in the day, when the food was real and the labor that produced it neither alienated nor obscured — and discovers a long-forgotten technique, plucked from an ur-knowledge as old as thought and a truth as pure as the soul.

These techniques and the goods they produce do have origins, specific ones rooted in history and in people. The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.

In the U.S., historical memory considers slave labor in relation to one crop: cotton. From common images depicting enslaved black people in fields to phrases like “wait just a cotton-picking minute,” there is a persistent notion that American slavery was limited to performing a single, unskilled chore. But antebellum society depended on a diverse set of skills transported and developed by enslaved and indigenous peoples and immigrants.

Southern architecture alone, of both luxe and modest scale, evinces not only the aesthetic influences of African-descended cultures — classic “Southern” shotgun house design has origins in early African and Haitian communities formed in New Orleans — but, as structures, they exist as living testimony to learned hands and specialized building techniques. Besides field laborers, planter and urban communities both depended on proficient carpenters, blacksmiths, gardeners, stable hands, seamstresses, and cooks; the America of the 1700s and 1800s was literally crafted by people of color.

Part of this hidden history includes the revelation that six slaves were critical to the operation of George Washington’s distillery, and that the eponymous Jack Daniel learned to make whiskey from an enslaved black man named Nathan “Nearest” Green. As Clay Risen reported for the New York Times last year, contrary to the predominant narrative that views whiskey as an ever “lily-white affair,” black men were the minds and hands behind American whiskey production. “In the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks, white distillery owners took credit for the whiskey,” he writes. Described as “the best whiskey maker that I know of” by his master, Dan Call, Green taught young Jack Daniel how to run a whiskey still. When Daniel later opened his own distillery, he hired two of Green’s sons.

Over time, that legacy was forgotten, creating a gap in knowledge about American distilling traditions — while English, German, Scottish, and Irish influences exist, that combination alone cannot explain the entirely of American distilling. As bourbon historian Michael Veach suggests, slave culture pieces together an otherwise puzzling intellectual history. It wouldn’t be a stretch at all to assume a period of history where alcohol production was largely undergirded by enslaved men and women; Risen notes in a recent update on Green’s story that “in all likelihood, there were many other men like Green, scattered around the South” who were “the brains as well as the brawn” behind distilling operations.

Inspired by last year’s Times piece, real estate investor and author Fawn Weaver has done extensive archival research on Green, collecting “10,000 documents and artifacts,” and has begun working on a book. Because of Weaver’s research and advocacy, this past May, Brown-Forman, Jack Daniels’ parent company, named Green as its first master distiller, ahead of Daniel himself. (The company told the Times that it intended to more formally recognize Green’s contributions last year, but didn’t want to look like it was profiting from the political climate that surrounded the election.)

For now, the public image of what distilling looks like in America remains white, even in the face of more recent history. Moonshine, experiencing a craft renaissance of its own, almost exclusively conjures a certain image of backwoods whiteness and Prohibition-era bootlegging — a product, in part, of the white cultural monopoly on all things “country,” while black people are endlessly “urban” — an image that continues to be burnished by vested interests. “We as a society have created its value and meaning, bound up in images of mountains and overalls and shotguns and the way a man wears his hat. I played my part in this fiction,” admits the writer Matt Bondurant in an essay about his family’s moonshining legacy and his efforts to tell their story.

The rural is as much a domain of black life, and moonshining was a part of it. “I lived in a totally black world,” the artist Jonathan Green said in a recent conversation with the poet Kevin Young about his family’s moonshine production. That world was not an urban jungle but a Southern, rural community of landholders, farmers, hunters, and store owners. “Moonshine was also called a happy drink, it was also a medicinal drink,” Green said. “I only knew of moonshine as a sort of miracle liquid, if you will.” As a child, Green’s grandparents allowed him peeks into moonshining; he recalls the long early morning walks with his grandfather to stills that “were always hidden” deep in the woods, and how family visiting from out of town always left with crates full of moonshine. “I only saw moonshining as a major part of my family history and culture.”

But now that moonshine is a part of craft culture, what’s ultimately left to do is “package the story, feed the legend, make some money,” as Bondurant writes. Only white stories seem to have made it into the package.

The history of barbecue in America is, unlike whiskey or moonshine, so inescapably black that it has been impossible to completely whitewash that legacy, one succinctly encapsulated by Lauren Collins in the New Yorker:

Before the Civil War, enslaved men often cooked these civic meals. They prepared their own feasts, too, either sanctioned by their owners or organized on the quiet. Much of the planning for the rebellions organized by Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner took place at barbecues. After emancipation, black men continued to be some of the country’s leading pit masters, catering enormous spreads that featured everything from barbecued hogs, shoats, chickens, and lambs to stuffed potatoes, stewed corn, cheese relish, puddings, coffee, and cigars. In 1909, the Times noted the death of a man born around 1865, on a plantation in Edgefield County, South Carolina. “Pickens Wells, one of the most famous barbecue cooks in the South, dropped dead today while preparing a barbecue,” the item read. “Pickens prepared the famous barbecue at which President Taft was the guest of honor last Winter. White men here are raising a fund to erect a monument to the negro as a tribute to his fidelity and character.”

And yet, in the new wave of craft barbecue, or what Texas Monthly’s Daniel Vaughn calls “big city barbecue,” marked by a “focus on premium quality meats,” uncannily tender cuts, higher prices, and interminable lines, it is often distanced from black people and black culture. In 2015, the BBC reported that black pitmasters are being left out of the U.S.’s current “barbecue boom.” This is partly a matter of who has access to capital — Daryle Brantley, the owner of C&K Barbecue in St. Louis County, told the BBC that he could not get a loan to support his barbecue empire because of “structured racism” (the number of Small Business Administration loans that went to black-owned businesses dropped significantly and disproportionately between 2008 and 2014) — and partly a matter of representation. "The national press would have you believe barbecue is dominated by white hipster males,” the food writer Robb Walsh has noted, pointing to coverage that leaves out or diminishes the work and visibility of black pitmasters.

One glaring example, a compilation of “America's most influential BBQ pitmasters and personalities” published by Fox News, rather conspicuously included zero black people. Another, more recent list by Zagat, of “12 Pitmasters You Need to Know Around the U.S.,” names just two black pitmasters, Ed Mitchell and Rodney Scott, who frequently appear in such lists as lonesome bulwarks against all-white casts of barbecue mavens. (Scott and Mitchell, two of the most accomplished pitmasters in the country, also make the cut in a Southern Living video about the South’s best pitmasters, for instance.)

The enormous power of craft culture to omit and obscure is in some ways rendered most clearly by the case of barbecue: Even though its roots in pit-style cooking on plantations are well known, its transmutation from a staple to a product of true craft is a feat largely attributed to the exceptional taste and unique skill of the white pitmasters who have claimed it as their own. In the process, the people and cultures most instrumental to the development of barbecue are effectively barred from participating in the genre at its highest and most exalted levels. Instead, they’re left to continue developing it in their own communities and establishments — waiting for their innovations to inevitably be taken and elevated so that they can be distributed to a wider, whiter audience always hungry for the next carefully packaged piece of another culture’s cuisine.

Within craft culture, coffee seems like an exception to narratives of white authorship. In the 1990s, the coffee industry experienced something of an ethical crisis as avid drinkers became aware of the inhumane costs of their daily cup. This led to the rise of socially responsible roasters, widely known as the “third wave of coffee,” and most visibly associated with Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture. These roasters and their ilk were and are, in theory, a curative to the ills of Big Coffees: Unlike large corporate entities who abuse the land and labor of the Latin American, West Indian, African, and Asian communities where coffee is exclusively grown, small-batch roasters claim an intimate and amicable relationship with farmers who are fairly compensated, as evinced by posters and pamphlets of lovingly profiled and photographed farmers that blanket their websites and cafes.

But craft coffee readily displays the black and brown bodies of the people who farm it only because it doesn’t have much of a story to sell without them. While many artisanal products derive a portion of their premium from the perception that they are ethically produced — the heritage hog that gave its life for this pork shoulder died happy; the heirloom grains in this beer weren’t sprayed with planet-killing pesticide; the butcher’s apprentice is fairly compensated — it is the core value proposition for craft coffee, which cannot be produced locally. The sociologist Nicki Lisa Cole has found, as a result, that the movement towards a socially conscious cup of coffee is heavily invested in making “interaction with racialized bodies safe for white consumers.”

In a survey of imagery used by coffee companies, Cole found that they leaned on “racially and culturally essentialized depictions of the coffee farmer, their lives, and communities, which facilitate knowledge of coffee farmers as distinctly different from consumers in the United States,” neatly distancing the farmer from the consumer.

Further, Cole writes, “coffee farmers, their families, and communities are described as helpless against the exploitative forces of the capitalist market that undervalues their labor by setting a low price for coffee. The discourse tells consumers that by purchasing socially responsible coffee they can improve lives and communities in coffee growing regions, thus consumers too are able to help steward coffee farmers toward a better way of life.” Every $5 cup is dosed with a whiff of philanthropy, satiating the coffee drinker’s desire to be an ethical consumer with good taste, even though farmers get just pennies on the dollar.

A white-savior narrative is also neatly embedded within the typical story of how craft coffee gets from the farm to the consumer: The pristine crop lies deep in a primitive land, waiting to be discovered by oracle-like coffee buyers; the benevolent coffee company shows the farmer how to grow his own crop to meet its high standards; finally, the beans’ essential flavors are unlocked with masterful roasting on vintage equipment and the skillful techniques of tattooed baristas.

Beyond the farms, like most other realms of craft culture, there are few visible people of color in coffee. Michelle Johnson, known as the Chocolate Barista, writes in a blog post, “I can comfortably claim that specialty coffee is a white man's world. All of my bosses have been white men; at competition, most of the judges and baristas are white men, and so are a majority of my guests when I'm working behind the bar." As Johnson concludes, “I recognize that for now specialty coffee is mostly a white man’s game, but it doesn’t have to be a racist one.”

Instead of living up to the vibrant, unique histories that food and drink have to offer, craft culture’s commitment to lifting itself away from its origins has made it monotonous and predictable. From product to product and industry to industry, artisanal quality seems to generate the same set of descriptions — small-batch, local, sustainable, vintage, heritage, farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, crop-to-cup — even though the point of consuming craft products is to enjoy something unique. The signifiers of craft have become so diluted that now even McDonald’s proudly advertises its “signature crafted recipes.” It’s not so surprising then that the public is rediscovering its appreciation and even pride in fast food, the common, and the gluttonous.

For craft culture to survive as more than an artful label or meaningless slogan, as something not synonymous with the Panera Breads and Blue Moons, it will need to take its own objectives seriously and embrace the stories behind the facade, the ones about individual people and specific histories and ongoing traditions. Otherwise, it will succumb to the same cycle of alienation as the mass-produced culture it once stood against. Rather than look for the next picture-perfect face to head the trend, food culture would do well to look around and pass the mic to the people of color. Craft is only as white as the lies it tells itself.

Lauren Michele Jackson is a writer and PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago.
Richie Pope is an illustrator and cartoonist currently living in Dallas.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter
Fact checked by Pearly Huang

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