Discover more from soft leaves
Creativity in the Cracks
Two weeks from today (Oct 15th) is the second NYC Fungus Fest. Last year was rainy but still a blast — this year I’ll be running a cooking workshop called “Shroomify Anything!” and Smallhold will have my shiitake cookies for sale. Get tickets here!
My friend Emily drove from almost-Long-Island-Queens to Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bedstuy, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan last week in her deteriorating car to deliver the ice cream that she sells for $15/pint. The labor she puts into the ice cream is ridiculous. The flavors are things like Goat Cheesecake with sour cherries and bee pollen almond brittle or Vegan Dirty Chai Latte with Burlap+Barrel spices and honeycomb candy. They always involve making multiple mix-ins and infusions and sauces that take her days. The ingredients are expensive as well — Valrhona chocolate or upstate raw milk or farmers’ market berries. This, along with the fact that she’s a genius, is why her ice cream is the best anywhere in the city. She could probably charge a little more, but at a certain point how much will people pay for ice cream?
Economically, what she’s doing doesn’t make sense. The gas plus wear and tear on her car equal out the delivery fee and overall she’s probably making a little bit of profit — unless you count labor, in which case she’s losing money. Psychically, though, this work is what fulfills her creative drive. Making beautiful food is her thing, and people’s appreciation of it is an uncountable reward. It’s just a difficult way to exist.1
The food industry isn’t one for big profits, but the people I love within it always seem to find ways to slip their creativity into the narrowest of margins. I think of Paige, who used arancini to continually improvise flavors as a way to stay inspired. “I cook in a style where I’ve laid out blank canvases…You have to make those canvases for yourself, to be able to use what’s around you, be resourceful, be sustainable, and also be creative.” Jenn has hot dogs as her canvas for her weekly pop-up at Wonderville, and also practices extreme creativity in her catering menus (an “alien organic” wedding or a film company’s 8-year-birthday that celebrates the infinity symbol). This is so much more work than offering a set menu with modifications, like most caterers, but she’s built up a strong enough reputation over time to find customers who value it. Lagusta “squeaks through the system” with her chocolate businesses, somehow managing to source ethical2 ingredients and pay her employees fairly and involve them in the creative process, producing wild and wonderful vegan chocolates. Though, as she puts it, “The rub is, of course, that because these nice thoughtful lovingly crafted products reflect a real price paid for raw materials and to those who created them, they’re often accessible only to those with disposable income.” And many of those with disposable income still think the costs of food and service are “unfair.”
Our culture has a hard time assessing the value of food and the work that goes into it. Feeding each other is fundamental — a labor of love — but also a form of creative expression — elevated to “high art” status by shows like The Bear or (in a more critical light) The Menu. In this way, it manages to span two entirely different sectors of undervalued work: care work and art. “Like caring work, art work was something outside of and contrasted to capitalist production,” writes Sarah Jaffe in Work Won’t Love You Back. “The romantic attachment of the artist to his work is the counterpart of the familial love women are supposed have for caring work.” We take it for granted that our server will be friendly and that our dessert will be worth posting on Instagram. We have some vague awareness that serving tables is hard work and that many pastry chefs have expensive educations, but those considerations don’t factor in when we’re after a “reasonably priced” Friday night treat.
I’m not here to nag about tipping,3 but how about this: can we practice seeing craftsmanship in food better? Like, just noticing the simplicity of a dish of beans where the beans taste more beany than any beans you’ve had. And that maybe those beans are worth the equivalent cost of a big burrata blob. Value tends to be equated with luxury, so it’s usually the aspects of service that make you feel “important” or the ingredients that are associated with affluence that make people think they’re getting their money’s worth. Luxury is very much not my vibe, which may have something to do with my obsession with Superiority Burger.4 There, I find quality in food and thoughtfulness in presentation in dishes served on paper placemats. When you order a shake, it comes to the table with a straw for every guest in a different color, which is lowkey more thoughtful than any fancy garnish they could do instead.
Craftsmanship can find its way outside of for-profit businesses as well. Bake sales give me hope, in all their glorious anti-capitalist inefficiency. For the Yu & Me Bake Sale last month, 80 professional and home bakers put in hundreds of hours on their cookies, layer cakes, mochi donuts, focaccia; hundreds of people waited in a line down the block to buy the treats, and out of all of that collective effort, $5,432 was raised for the bookstore. Meanwhile, everyone had a good weekend. Home bakers had an opportunity to flex their skills outside of their friend circle and professionals had that rare chance to craft something great without worrying about profit margins. Everyone else got to eat extremely delicious fresh baked goods, priced lower than they would be at a bakery. (And someone even met the love of their life.)
The drive for creativity is more powerful than market forces or shitty jobs, so we find ways to practice it. If we’re lucky, we can get paid for something related to the work that makes us satisfied, but more often we’re hacking a workplace to force a little art in or striking out to make something on our own, hoping it can turn enough of a profit to live. It’s all harder than it should be, but what interests me less than the (myriad, unjust) structural reasons for that are the ways we do it anyway. We squeeze what is necessary into the cracks of what is required and it is a delight to behold.
Emily needs work right now! Know of any gigs or need something delicious for an event? Reach out to her, or ask me and I can put you in touch.
No ingredients are 100% ethical; Lagusta titled a section of her cookbook: “Ethical Consumption” Ha Ha Ha
It should be abolished, but until then, tip hard