Ruth Reichl was standing in front of a gigantic American flag hanging like a banner along the wall of the Ferry Building on Friday, January 13th. It was a backdrop worthy of any Presidential hopeful stumping for votes in the heartland, but here, the stars and stripes were evoking not just Mom and apple pie but Mom's apple pie, and maybe great-granddaddy's moonshine, and now their kids' apple-whiskey chutney and curried cauliflower pickles. It was time to welcome the room of makers and media, gathered in San Francisco for the 2nd annual Good Food Awards, a celebration of the best of artisanal food production from coast to coast.
"Most of you are too young to have grown up in the white-bread world that I did," said Reichl. Every cheese was sliced and wrapped in plastic, all strawberries were huge and tasted like cotton. This changed, slowly, through the work of pioneers like Alice Waters, sitting off to one side of the podium, as well as dozens of other food pioneers. Reichl remembered the first time she walked into The Cheeseboard, in Berkeley and was handed a taste of Laura Chenel's Sonoma-made fresh goat cheese. Reichl lived on it all that summer, and knew that she had to meet the woman making something so new (to American tastes) and so delicious. Then there was "Artists of the Earth," an article she wrote for California magazine in the early 1980s, profiling nine men and women making a difference in the food world and beyond. "They are some of California's most valuable resources," she wrote then, "...perfectionists who work very hard not because they expect to get rich but simply because they expect to get the best."
Walking through Chino Ranch with Alice a few years later, she was amazed at the quality of produce surrounding them. Corn so sweet it needed no cooking. Strawberries so intensely fragrant that every fellow traveler on the small plane she and Alice were taking from San Diego to Oakland came up and begged for a berry off the flats they were carrying in their laps. "Every person said, 'I forgot strawberries could smell like that! Please, can I just have one?'" she recounted. "And I watched Alice give away that night's dessert for Chez Panisse, because how could she say no?"
"Back then, I never could have dreamed how huge the change was going to be. We now live in a country that has the best produce in the world...We are reclaiming our edible heritage. "Thank you for giving us the America we once dreamed we could have."
After this came the awards, 99 products in eight categories (coffee, chocolate, charcuterie, pickles, preserves, cheese, beer, spirits). There were no single winners; instead, each category had a fat handful of top picks, from seven coffee roasters to 14 preserve-makers. The winners, like food-world Olympians, got medallions stamped in the shape of the tools of their trade--a cleaver, a canning jar--strung on wide red-white-and-blue ribbons to hang around their necks.
It was hard not to feel a little hometown, homestate pride at the fine showing the Bay Area, and California, made in the final running. Two local beers made the cut, at opposite ends of the brewing spectrum: from San Leandro, Drake's Brewing Company's high-alcohol, rich-as-devil's-food Drakonic Imperial Stout, and from Petaluma, the Lagunitas Brewing Company's spritzy, grapefruity ale, dubbed A Lil' Sumpin' Sumpin'. In the coffee category, Equator Coffees from San Rafael won for its fair trade/organic Ethiopian Watadera beans.
In pickles, California snagged three of the 11 winning picks, including Farmhouse Culture's Smoked Jalapeno Sauerkraut, Emmy's Pickles and Jams' Turmeric Cauliflower, and the Devil Sauce made by Let's Be Frank, of grass-fed hot-dog truck fame. (And we'll give a California hug to OlyKraut, which was founded by Sash Sunday, a former San Franciscan who got into the kraut biz shortly after relocating to Olympia, WA. Plus, she makes nettle kraut!)
We tied with New York in the cutthroat preserves category, winning for Artisan Preserves' Orange Honey Marmalade, Chez Pim's Blueberry-Golden Raspberry Preserves, and Wine Forest Wild Foods' Wild Elderberry Shrub.
It's a cascade of riches from our part of the Golden State: Costa Rican chocolate bars from Dandelion Chocolate in SF; white whiskey from Wylie Howell Spirits in Petaluma; Carmody (my favorite!) and whole-milk ricotta from Bellwether Farms in West Marin; yogurt cheese from Sonoma's St. Benoit, pork, rabbit, and duck terrine from Fatted Calf in SF and Napa; speck from Oakland wine bar/salumeria Adesso.
Come the next morning, many of the previous night's winners were out in force at the Good Food Awards Marketplace, a tasting/selling spread of tables organized by category set up under the archways of the Ferry Building. Reichl, who now runs the specialty food (and content) site Gilt Taste, was on hand with a keen appetite, even after a late-night dinner with Alice and friends at Locanda in the Mission. Already, she's tried the chilaquiles and shrimp ceviche at the Primavera market stand, and tells me, joyfully, of the "best breakfast sandwich" she's ever had, from 4505 Meats: a soft, buttery brioche bun piled with a maple-bacon sausage patty, an oozy-centered fried egg, and a frizz of snappy peppercress. Speaking of her talk the previous night, she laughed at the thought of trying to profile just eight makers now. "At the time, it was hard to find even eight people, enough to write about. I had to include a produce distributor, a guy who was raising pigs and lambs for Chez Panisse. Now, that would be ridiculous. You'd have to write an encyclopedia!"
If anything, she thinks we're underestimating the strength and staying power of the artisan movement. Already, the food makers' landscape has changed drastically in just the past five years. In the next five, ten years, what will it look like?
There's no doubt, though, that the movement is fostering ever-closer relationships between chefs, makers and farmers. These products, from basil vodka to sea-vegetable kraut, are only as good as their raw ingredients. Recounting a cabbage blight that decimated the California crop last year, Farmhouse Culture founder Kathryn Lukas quoted Let's Be Frank's Larry Bain, laughing, "It's hard when you're in business with God."