It never failed. But in a good way.
Back in the day, I’d often walk into my Austrian-born grandmother’s Lower East Side New York apartment only to head right back out again ten minutes later. That’s because after welcoming me with a huge platter of freshly baked cookies or cake… frequently both… she would invariably press a shopping list and crumpled bills into my hand and announce: “Geh jetzt (Go now). I need one or two more ingredients for our kleines Abendessen (a little dinner).”
Of course, what she really meant was:
- I need ten to twenty more ingredients for dinner, and
- When I say “little”, I don't mean “little”.
In terms of the former, that’s because my extraordinary cook of a grandmother never wholly embraced the concept behind the modern supermarket. To her, there was nothing remotely “super” about it at all.
The notion that someone would purposely trade quality for convenience was unfathomable to her; in fact, she called it a "scandal!" She was one of those people who went to market almost everyday – and then only to her carefully chosen few who consistently offered the freshest, best product available -- to get exactly what she needed when she needed it. After all, her thinking went, why get fresh fish on Monday if you don’t plan on cooking it until Wednesday? What's wrong with the getting Wednesday?
Practically, what did my grandmother's staunch devotion to quality mean for me on those shopping days when I was her personal emissary? Primarily, a hell of a lot of walking, not to mention continually having to promise her loyal cadre of shopkeepers that I would “make sure Mrs. B knows I saved the best piece for her!” They may have been smiling when they said it, but the fear in their eyes was always palpable.
Let’s say her shopping list included one pepper, two carrots and three potatoes. With nearby chains such as Gristedes and Grand Union strictly verboten, my first stop was Sam the Greengrocer on First Avenue. Chicken cutlets? Anthony the Butcher over on 18th. (Note: if Anthony Sr. wasn’t there, then only Anthony Jr.’s knifework was acceptable. Barely.) Black bread? Lithuanians down on 9th Street. Rye bread? Whatshisname, up on 23rd. And so it went. You get the idea.
Occasionally, when I was feeling particularly lazy or stupid… frequently both… I’d return from my expedition and try to pass off a counterfeit item from one of the more convenient off-limit shops. In a hot second, like a master criminologist in the FBI’s Art Fraud Division, my grandmother KNEW. “Sam would never sell such a pitiful green pepper”, she’d say quietly, more in sorrow than in anger. “Where exactly did you find this… thing?” That last part was usually louder. And more in anger.
At that point, no amount of playing the beloved grandson card would absolve me of my ham-fisted attempt to cut corners. Boy meet door, yet again. In the end, of course, the immensely satisfying dinners that followed my complex shopping excursions were all well worth it. And then some.
After all, it’s a fairly simple proposition: great ingredients + skill + love = delicious.
"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives, the cumulative experience of many masters of craftsmanship."John Ruskin
(Re)Enter the Artisan
Obviously, things have changed quite a bit since the days when a majority of American towns and neighborhoods were packed with the specialty shops my grandmother so revered. Those bustling storefronts from my childhood have disappeared, by and large, and replaced by grocery chains that prize cheap labor, cheap products and conformity above all else.
And it’s not just the food industry. In today’s ongoing economic battle between mom and pops and corporations, from jewelry design to furniture making to family farming, small independents all across the country are coming under increasing economic pressure from mega-corporations that outsource to other mega-corporations in far-flung locales. The resulting prices may be LOW! LOW! LOW!... but so is the quality of their items. And respect for workers and the environment.
In a nutshell: everybody loses.
The good news, however, is bit by bit, attitudes are changing. In recent years, evolving personal tastes have resulted in a diminishing appetite for mass produced items and a renewed popularity for the kinds of goods previous generations took for granted; namely, authentic, functional and beautifully designed items built to last by people who pour their heart and soul into everything they do.
These same artisans, it must be said, are not greenhorns when it comes to business. They understand that to compete in today’s modern economy they must have the ability to adapt. By shifting certain non-critical elements of production from hand to machine, for example – such as labeling, packaging, etc. --- they are finding themselves increasingly able to to compete with larger entities without abandoning the creative, human-oriented values that define their work in the first place.
Unlike before, in this particular nutshell: everybody wins!
Look, it‘s not exactly breaking news that we here at Firecracker strongly value goods made primarily by human hands. It’s why we do what we do. We artisanal goods because they are:
"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."Steve Jobs