“We feel a literary quality to what we’re doing,” says artisanal chocolatier Michael Mast in a 2010 documentary about his company, Mast Brothers, which was busted last month for selling repackaged Valrhona bars. “We’re writing our story as we go along.”
Rick Mast then chimes in. “When they taste our chocolate, it’s like an old Mark Twain story of adventure,” he says. He strokes his beard, which looks like a train robber’s bandana; bagpipes well up on the soundtrack. “Our almost Emersonian spirit is something that we love and hope relates and shows in our chocolate.”
One might say of the Mast brothers, if one were feeling charitable, that whatever their failure to credit Belgian confectioners for the stuff they melted, remolded and sold under their own name, they were relatively upfront about their literary debts.
I am not feeling charitable.
I have a message for the Masts. It’s less about the meltdown than the fallout. It’s not the crime so much as the cover-up. The trouble with little lies — about being 100 percent bean to bar, for example, or being industry pioneers — is that they put everything you do into question.
Are you really an open book about your bean sourcing? Do “the brothers personally craft each bar of chocolate,” as your Amazon blurb says, and hand sort all the beans, like in the pictures? Speaking of photography, how come there are no pictures of you sailing that handcrafted wooden ship and greeting indigenous peoples on the sandy shores of far-off places and paying them a fair price for beans? Are you truly an alternative to modern corporate capitalism?
We believed you stood for more than chocolate. You represented that rarest of things, a premium product, the purchase of which allowed us to transcend the vulgarity and exploitation of consumer culture. What politically progressive, morally conscientious, intellectually ambitious person with $10 in pocket money could resist that vision? I certainly couldn’t.
I bought and ate the 2015 sea salt bar, noting its coppery tang, spumy echoes of coastal Maine and what seemed to me dark Melvillian undercurrents. The chili pepper was lively, pungent and sweaty, very Latin, flirtatiously feral, except on the upper palate, where I tasted Jorge Luis Borges. The Papua New Guinea tastes, as advertised, of maple bacon and aged scotch, but only briefly, for this is a complex bar, beginning with off-notes of Werner Herzog and mildewed linen and ending with most of “Hamlet,” except the soliloquies and other boring parts. I didn’t care for the vanilla and smoke — Martin Heidegger is not my thing — but finished it anyway. Why do things by halves? I bit into the Brooklyn blend, expecting balanced notes of Jonathan Franzen and Twitter but ended up with a mouthful of Alan Dershowitz. Things went south from there.
The Belize tasted exactly like bathwater that Allen Ginsberg had just raised himself out of, with a large and hairy liquid heave. I swallowed, with determination. The goat cheese Madagascar was, frankly, repellent, albeit in an interesting way, a three-pronged assault of Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism and citric acid with a sharp vomity afterbang, followed minutes later by a bold, hot, muffled intestinal roll-out rumble, like a firework finale in heavy fog. It was the eighth or ninth bar I had eaten in rapid succession. I fell back in my beanbag — replete, tremulous and queasy but also wiser, I thought, more morally aware, better read. I saved the wrappers.
I won’t say exactly how much I sank into this rotten scheme, but it ran well into three figures. So no one felt more betrayed than I did by the recent revelations. If the Mast Brothers meltdown is the Bernie Madoff scam of the 2010s, then I was its Elie Wiesel. But for me, it wasn’t about the money. I knew I’d never see my approximately $150 again. It was about restoring humanity’s faith that artisanal integrity, cultural stewardship and global economic justice can be achieved through tasteful product selection.
On one of the many blank, sunless, cheerless, indistinguishably gray mornings that followed the bombshell news, I found myself at the breakfast table, eating cereal and looking listlessly at the box. Honey nut Cheerios, it said, is now gluten-free, thanks to someone called Phil, “a member of the Cheerios team for over 50 years,” who after discovering that his daughter-in-law was gluten intolerant made it his mission to “make sure that every family, including his, could enjoy breakfast together.”
The warmth and intimacy of that image rekindled something days dormant in me, and I read on. The section about the Cheerios “journey from field to bowl” described the individual farmers who grow oats for the team and how they all put their heads together and “after a lot of late nights and hard work” figured out how to filter out wheat and barley, which have gluten in them. I looked at the pictures — of Phil, of oat plants, of small hand-sorted grain piles. I poured another bowl, reached for my spoon and froze.
Fool me twice, as they say, shame on me. Has Cheerios always been a true field-to-bowl operation? Is it small batch? Has it always been? The mental image I had of Phil and the team hard at work sorting and roasting a bowl’s worth of cereal in about the same time as I took to eat it — is this even true?
I looked up and dialed the General Mills phone number and after two hours was patched through to someone called Rajiv, who sounded like C-3PO on Skype. I asked him all these questions, repeatedly, and finally also if I could talk to Phil. I was offered a book of coupons.
Since then, I’ve pledged to go right to the bottom of the artisan racket. I’m going to find out if Jack Daniel’s actually handcrafts 11 million cases of whiskey every year in its Lynchburg, Tennessee, distillery. I’ll knock on the door of Chipotle’s Denver headquarters and ask, point blank, what it means when it says, “Small farms come in many sizes,” and exactly which strain of E. coli it’s featuring in select West Coast restaurants. (Is it locally sourced? Do its employees have a hand in its production?) We’ll see if the McDonald’s story of a gentleman farmer and clown who loves children and makes trillions of hamburgers by hand is true. I’ll be making phone calls and doing the rounds. I’ll be fact-checking images, ideas and mental associations. I won’t stop until the truth is known. And I want you to join me, America.
It’s going to mean calling people out, naming and shaming. It’s going to mean staring at labels, checking the footnotes and the fine print, regardless of grocery aisle gridlock. It’s going to mean shoe leather. I see armies of citizen-journalists holding burger pickles up to the light, cocking a critical eye at their Icees, posing tough, uncompromising questions to everybody anywhere making anything or selling it, from the child next door with his lemonade stand to the phone representatives of our nation’s oldest and most iconic family corporations.
Because what you buy says who you are. Ultimately what is at stake is your personal brand. I prefer the older term “soul,” which seems more real to me. I love Walt Whitman’s fiercely Whitmanian idea that the American brand legacy is a function of our collective soulcraft. Those who can stand behind their brand and say they built it by hand will thrive in that vision. Others, starting with the Mast brothers, should pack up and take their business elsewhere, perhaps to Asia or other promising emerging markets.
This is the first in a seven-part exposé on American food manufacturing.