Lauren Michele Jackson’s “The White Lies of Craft Culture” examines the way that people of color have been systematically erased from the stories around “heritage” and “artisanal” food production. Originally published last year for Eater, Jackson’s essay gets at the sticky intersections of race, class, and labor. Craft culture, she writes, “a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism,” manages to simultaneously fetishize historical origins and remain highly selective about the histories it celebrates. It consistently exploits the “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.” For craft culture to survive, she concludes, it would need to “take its own objectives seriously and embrace the stories behind the façade.”
Jackson makes these points through the concrete examples of whiskey, moonshine, barbecue, and coffee. As she explains how enslaved man Nathan “Nearest” Green taught Jack Daniels to make whiskey, or how the rhetoric around socially responsible coffee lets consumers feel like philanthropists, Jackson performs what is, to me, one of food studies’ distinctive tricks. Like so much good food writing, her essay grounds the complexity of cultural histories and systemic injustice in the more accessible terms of supermarkets and dinner plates. As Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman point out, the craft food movement’s “consistent narrative” along with its “predominantly white and middle class character” suggests that “it may itself be something of a monoculture.” “The White Lies of Craft Culture” both helps students to understand the problems with a monocultural food movement and shows them how to use the tools of the discipline to challenge dominant narratives.
I teach the essay in my freshman writing classes because students latch on to the specific examples and it works well with popular shows like David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” and exercises in food packaging analysis. I also teach it because it provides a model of dynamic academic writing for a public audience. Following the essay’s dense web of hyperlinks, students find themselves lost down productive internet rabbit holes. They learn about the racial politics of big city barbecue, the marketing tactics around twelve-dollar ice cream, and the ironies of McDonald’s “signature crafted recipes.” As they chase their personal interests and inclinations through the references, they begin to understand the value of citational accountability and the importance of acknowledging writers whose work enables their own.
Sometimes, too, when this essay comes on the heels of a particularly long stretch of quotation mechanics or argument construction, it works as its own kind of disciplinary evidence. Look what happens when you can seamlessly integrate secondary sources! Think about how much work the title is doing here! See what I mean about powerful conclusions? As much as Jackson’s essay provides a compelling example of the analytical power of food studies, the success of her scalar leaps from individual stories to craft culture writ large also allows the essay to serve as an introduction to the craft of college writing.
Molly MacVeagh is a PhD student in English at Cornell University. Her project looks at representations of biotechnology in contemporary novels, with a particular emphasis on science fiction’s speculative agrifutures.