In today’s food and beverage world, the adjective craft often signifies more than technique or ingredients: it points to scale, agency, and audience, to small-batch creations just inventive enough to attract discriminating publics. Trace the word back, though, and its meanings broaden. As archaeologist and historian Alexander Langlands explains it, the Old English cræft referred to making undertaken with a savvy resourcefulness, a combination of skill and ingenious adaptation. Cræft encompassed not only manual dexterity, but also the surprising repurposings of poetry, the thrifty management of time and materials, and the negotiated give-and-take of relationship-building.1
This expansive yet nuanced definition helps us reconsider today’s modes of production and assignments of prestige—moments when acts of assembly are framed as masterful and times when we construe them as mindless, monotonous labor or as frivolous play. If chef and cook call to mind gendered, classed, and racialized distinctions in the context of culinary skill for hire, craft and cræft shed light on similarly fraught spaces of production and consumption: artisanal workshop, factory, home. We might ask, for instance: In a region in which cured hams and slow-cooked barbecue are beloved alongside ready-to-eat Vienna sausages and red hot dogs, whose craftiness counts when it comes to meat processing?
In the American South—where “zealous feelings about hogs” persist—iconic meatcrafts like country ham, barbecue, and smoked sausage have historically helped to manage the excesses of autumn slaughters. Craft processes like these are practical by definition, yet the label also builds in assumptions about value. We might mark such practices as artisanal, that is, as skilled aesthetic behaviors demanding both “patience and memory.” When makers apply the weight of historical precedent and the spark of personalized engagement, we might call their work authentic (and pay more for it). Such is the case with three meat processors profiled in the oral history series Cured South, men whose intergenerational apprenticeships and context-based calibrations of “touch, feel, smell, taste” have earned them titles that include curemaster and Fleischermeister(master butcher), as well as premium prices for the goods they produce.2
Then there are the meats more commonly associated with the adjective processed: hot dogs, potted meat, deviled ham, Spam. All are foods efficiently presteamed rather than painstakingly cured or deliberately basted. All are mechanically uniform and convenient, ready to be popped in the mouth during work or play, eaten from a dinner pail or on the seat of a bass boat, nibbled from finger sandwiches at a ladies’ luncheon. Unlike the technique-centered talk that dominates discussion of artisanal meats—and despite the Southeast being one of America’s major pork-producing regions—when it comes to processed meats, cultural focus tends to pull toward how they are amended and eaten, rather than to how they’re fabricated: Do you eat baloney fried, between slices of mustard-slathered white bread, or as a pickled snack? Does a fully loaded dog include both chili and slaw? What secret additions make the best ham salad? Books that celebrate barbecue’s skilled and discerning pitmasters fill entire shelves. But what do we know about the people who emulsify and smoke our franks?3
Those laboring in America’s crowded slaughterhouses and packing plants became a bit more visible during the recent pandemic; as covid-19 sickened workers, consumers contemplated with alarm sparser breakfast tables and more expensive suppers. The Trump administration declared these facilities “critical infrastructure” and invoked the Defense Production Act to keep their often socially, physically, and politically vulnerable employees on the job. While the executive order underscored the power of food conglomerates, the vulnerabilities of complex supply chains, and the symbolic importance of meat in the American diet, it also prioritized products rather than makers—revealing a sense that (factory-) processed foods occupy a distinct conceptual space. Craft, we tell ourselves, is unprocessed: decoupled from assembly lines, transparently constructed, linked tightly to maker choices, and expressing pleasant irregularities and even frailties that remind us of its human roots. In contrast, processed meats have both mysterious origins and unnaturally long lifespans; they are uniform objects whose close contact with machines apparently precludes designations such as “masterful.” The people imagined to mediate between raw materials and saleable products in these contexts—if considered at all—are not artisans but hair-netted, white-smocked abstractions, “fungible widgets” rather than conscious agents.4
Certainly, assembly lines fragment and frenzy processes. Yet surviving in and excelling on the factory floor requires skill, power, and knowledge: rhythm with one’s team, a decisive feeling for form and technique, physical endurance and fine-tuned social coordination, and a kind of cleverness despite constraints that has been pejoratively called crafty. If we approach craft solely as a meticulous process in which makers retain maximal control, we ignore the cunning ways people respond within systems that prioritize anonymity, predictability, and repetition-based efficiency.5
And then there are domestic spaces, the ostensibly private and noncommercial sites of material production most familiar to many of us. Here, overt emphasis on making is often named, gendered, and dismissed as hobby—linked to an abundance of personal time and resources, and thereby to silliness or wasteful extravagance. Alternatively, subtle knowledges associated with women and domestic spaces—understandings of the body, local ecologies, and social systems—have historically been simultaneously recognized and repudiated as witchcraft. In any case, although plenty of efficacious, careful, and powerfully appealing work is completed outside for-profit workshops, it is rarely counted as craft in the visible and venerated sense, especially when that making involves repetitive labor and produces ephemeral, essential, everyday goods.6
Much, for instance, has been written about the art of hog-butchering (as a first step in the creation of whole, durable, and celebrated objects like country hams), but fewer words and pictures document processes such as rendering lard and making bulk sausage—tasks (not arts) often completed (by women) on the days following the Big Event, and in more private, notably domestic, settings. Considering craft primarily in terms of vocational specialization, we fail to notice meat produced during what one Texas writer called “hog-killing mop-up work,” as well as the working-class women and people of color who have prepared and served bulk sausage in the American South.7