“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman — not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen — though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
What’s going on here?
Welcome to the Renaissance Artisan Project (formerly The School of the Renaissance Artisan), a place where we’re going to celebrate the craftsmanship that (literally) built the renaissance. For the record: I never intended there to be students at this school, but rather a group of like-minded people moving together toward a common goal.
I eventually changed the name to ‘The Renaissance Artisan Project” because it’s more accurate and I got tired of saying “Think fish, not faculty” every time I told someone about it.
This project is at least in part the product of a mid-sentence epiphany that arrived one day as I was re-reading Anthony Bourdain’s memoir, quoted above. I dropped out of the narrative and my brain made a “ping” noise. After the echo died down, I turned to my wife, The Engineer, who was sitting next to me on the sofa knitting something horrifyingly complicated with yarn the size of sewing thread, and with portentous understatement, I said: “I want to learn all the crafts of the renaissance.”
She didn’t drop a stitch or even really look up. After spending half our lives together, she’s used to this sort of thing.
“Because I think that the artisans that actually built the renaissance are lost in the shadows cast by the Shakespeares and Davincis. Someone needs to speak for the working stiffs who showed up day in and day out, the real craftsmen who were stuck executing the grandiose dreams of those artists and nobles that get all the press! It is time to show the world just how hard it was to live and thrive and survive; to celebrate the skills and traditions that set the craftsmen apart from the serf and allowed them to build the independence and wealth to educate themselves and their children, giving rise to the middle class that would one day break the backs of the monarchies!”
Is what I wish I’d said.
What I really said was “Because it would be cool.”
“And I could write a book about it.”
“Would anyone read it?”
(Silence while I examine the cat’s teeth and ears as though I’d developed a sudden interest in veterinary science and pretend not to have heard.)
“Well, I guess you read that book about the guy who read the Encyclopedia Britannica.” She said with her favorite There’s No Accounting for Taste look. “All of the crafts of the renaissance?”
“Um… sure, why not?”
“Knitting? Weaving? Cooking? Brewing? Bookbinding? Butcher, baker, candlestick maker?”
“And how long do you expect this to take?”
She had me there. I hazarded a guess. I remembered the Encyclopedia Britannica guy.
“I dunno… a year?”
She gave me that artfully raised eyebrow that she has perfected over the decades and said something to the effect of “I think you probably need to narrow the scope of your project a bit.”
As the slug line on this page says, she was right; I was doomed to fail at that ridiculous deadline. She’s an engineer, so she’s uncommonly good at being right about things like this.
So now what?
When I first envisioned this project, it was “Hey, I have a neat idea!” It would be fun to write about. I could do a blog and even a book from something like that. Learning and failing and picking yourself up and carrying on at a breakneck pace is inherently good writing material. Farce scattered with moments of epiphany… at the expense of my subject.
Failure is liberating. If nothing else, it makes a more interesting story than success.
I figured out early on that I couldn’t do justice to the crafts and craftspeople of the past by running past their workshops, grabbing whatever I could as I sprinted past. The deadline was, by its very nature, grossly unfair to the people I was trying to bring back to life.
Bourdain, whose book kicked this off, was eternally and seriously devoted to closing the gap between the viewer and the time, place, and person on whom he was focusing. Whether it was his own sordid history that came under the focus of his lens, a goatherd in the Eritrean highlands, or a hunter in rural Missouri, he was as focused, as open, and as willing to pick up what they were putting down as he would be with any chef at a Michelin-starred bistro.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
British novelist L.P. Hartley famously observed, The past was a foreign country, they do things differently there. If I walked in with disdain in my heart for the ignorant savages that I was studying, or even just an ingrained surety that I was their intellectual superior, I could never do them justice. I could never revive their world.
Bourdain’s great gift to the world was not sprinting past the people whose culture he was visiting. He didn’t come as a tourist, he came as a craftsman. He took his time. He sat with them and listened to them, and gave them all his time and attention.
It’s not like I can move there, but I was doing a grievous disservice to my subject by thinking I could come as a tourist. There’s a balance, and finding it begins with not accepting limitations on how far I delve.
Please join me on this sojourn into the past. Don’t worry, we’ll bring the coffee maker.