The US housing crisis and the deeply intertwined financial services crisis have one important thing in common: Both, to a large extent, were the consequences of building castles in the air. And both helped put the country into an economic coma from which it is only now beginning to awake.
From an economic perspective, a return to consciousness will mean a reassessment of what works and what doesn't. From a personal perspective, it will mean a reassessment of work itself. Countless Americans today are looking for jobs that are meaningful, sustainable, and – in the true sense of the word – productive.
For some of them, perhaps many of them, that work may lie in the countryside or in the kitchen or in the salty depths of a feta brine tank.
In the course of researching a book about Wisconsin's master cheesemakers and editing a magazine dedicated to Midwestern food culture, I've had a chance to survey the boom of interest in locally made food from many angles.
If you can get past city limits – and then, more crucially, get past the suburbs that bloom everywhere like algae – you meet some remarkable people, people who use their hands to wrestle living ingredients into forms that are both truly beautiful and deceptively sophisticated.
The minor questions I've tackled have been concrete and comprehensible: How does an experienced beekeeper position his hives to access the perfect blend of alfalfa, basswood, and clover? Or how can cherries be incorporated into an aged cheddar without throwing off the balance of sugar, resulting in an ammoniated cheese?
But the major theme has been this: How can we take satisfaction from our work, every day?
What do you produce?
Your happiness at work can probably be answered, in large part, by answering a simple question: What is your work product?
If it's phone calls, spreadsheets, e-mails, meeting agendas, or reports, odds are good that you're an avid watcher of the clock.
Life consists of wanting to escape the office, physically or mentally – just watch any given Lean Cuisine commercial, wherein a pack of office-bound ladies jealously size up a rival who has had the good sense to pick a diet meal with the power to mentally transport her away from the air-conditioned salt mine that has entombed her spirit.
But if your work product is artisanal cheese, healthy free-range chickens, hand-roasted coffee, or authentic baguettes, you're probably consumed with and deeply enriched by it; consistently hassled by real-world economic concerns and competition, to be sure, but connected to your day-to-day labor in a way that's more emotionally meaningful – and more economically productive – than most of your office-bound counterparts.
Good farms, good food
All things agricultural and gastronomic have been coming into vogue in recent years – Michael Pollan has written about the need to return to the diets and food folkways of our great-grandparents, and Mark Kurlansky tackled the folksy food writing of the prewar Works Progress Administration in "The Food of a Younger Land."
There is a slow but building interest in making good food by hand, something reflected in a surge of new producers in the Midwest and beyond. Interest in sustainable and ethically treated meat and poultry has soared in recent years, and cheese plants are opening faster than they're closing in Wisconsin, as demand for artisanal cheese booms.
Bob Wills of Plain, Wis., will testify to the explosion of interest.
He's a master cheesemaker with a PhD in economics and a law degree who segued from a career in politics and academia to making mixed-milk cheeses and some of the tastiest cheese curds in the state.
"This is probably the most exciting time in the dairy industry in Wisconsin that there's ever been," Mr. Wills told me during a tour of his cheese-aging room in Wisconsin's idyllic Driftless Region.
"It's kind of like there's a renaissance – during history there have been these little periods when there'll be groups of writers in Paris or New York, or when [British poets] Shelley and Keats and Byron and all those guys hung out together and all challenged each other," he says. "And it feels like that's what's happening in Wisconsin right now."
The intellectual engagement demanded by seemingly simple things – growing vegetables, raising animals, making cheese – becomes evident only when you talk to masters of their crafts.
Take cheese, for example.
Every step an apprentice takes toward understanding the process of making the stuff reveals a new layer of complexity – the diet of the cows that make the milk, the breed and behavior of the bacteria that make the cheese, the market positioning and distribution required to stay competitive, the art of naming a new cheese, the frustrations and joys of training up the next generation.
Importance of humility
The common thread in interviewing more than 40 cheesemakers (not to mention a host of other Midwestern food craftspeople) was this: humility. The older and more experienced the master artisan, the more humility before the living ingredients he or she tended to exude.
Master cheesemakers don't burn out and move on – they work for 40 or 50 years, fully engaged to the end.
It goes without saying that a mass migration into artisanal foodmaking isn't a cure for the economy's past, present, or future turmoil, and that it's not a job for everybody. It's financially risky, exhausting, and, for anyone who's ever earned a steady paycheck, deeply intimidating and often impractical.
But the rewards – a connection to the land, to the community, and to an infinitely challenging craft – are something a spreadsheet-weary workforce should turn its tired eyes toward at this moment in history