Is Hip Again
Trends come and go while people, especially young ones, continually quest for the next new thing. Lately, though, it seems every fad is old-timey, from hunting and butchering to canning and homeschooling to growing a bushy beard and plunking a banjo. Is the renewed pioneer spirit a passing fad of callow hipsters indulging in hillbilly chic, or is it a return to authenticity in an increasingly manufactured world? It’s probably a bit of both.
American settlers pioneering westward in the early 1800s drove herds of cattle to the Great Plains grasslands. More than 6 million bovines would later trudge the Chisholm Trail north across these prairies, from Texas through the Indian Territory, bound for Chicago slaughterhouses. By the early 20th century the Oklahoma territory had been appropriated, the native peoples subdued or relocated, and the cowboys tamed. Today The Pioneer Woman, Food Network star Ree Drummond’s blog about her life on an Oklahoma cattle ranch, offers a pristine vision of contemporary homesteading on the prairie. Drummond, her rugged husband, nicknamed Marlboro Man, and their four children bale hay, round up cattle and enjoy “dang darn ding dadgum good” biscuits and sausage gravy. But the Drummonds’ cows enjoy a less wholesome fate; shipped to commercial feedlots, they are shot with medicines and gorged on corn (incompatible with their grass-oriented digestive systems) before the butchers take over.
Meanwhile, back in urban America, a growing group of foodie pioneers rejects such hormone- and antibiotic-tainted meat, seeking beef from cattle allowed to roam freely and feed on grass. Brooklyn butchers Joshua and Jessica Applestone wrote a book-length manifesto for the movement: The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.
Welcome to Brooklyn, New York; and Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas—urban enclaves of artisanal pickle makers and bicycling banjoists, where the search for “authenticity” sometimes looks a lot like grasping for whatever is cool. Except for the prices, shopping in these areas’ hippest markets (such as Brooklyn Flea), among the homemade salamis, jams, relishes and hand-knits, recalls a bygone America where mom-and-pop grocers and manufacturers skillfully crafted their own products. Jessica and Joshua Applestone opened the second of their Fleisher’s butcher shops in Brooklyn in 2011 (the first, in New York’s Hudson Valley, opened in 2004). Both are dedicated to sustainable, grass-fed meat and to re-creating the “intimacy and neighborhood feel” of the turn-of the-century shop run by Josh’s great-grandfather, Wolf Fleisher. The Applestones’ shops, butchery classes and book—The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy, Cut, and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry and More—beckon to the like-minded as well as the trendy. Julie Powell, who wrote Julie and Julia, about tackling every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, learned butchery from the Applestones and recorded the experience in Cleaving (2009), a poorly received memoir of meat hacking and adultery.
“I homeschool my punks,” Ree Drummond states on her blog, The Pioneer Woman. She and her husband abandoned the school system so their kids wouldn’t have to endure a three-hour daily school-bus ride. Drummond admits, “I always pictured homeschooling parents as denim-jumper-wearin’, no-fun-havin’, no-social-interaction-gettin’ fruitcakes who rap their children’s hands with switches if their cursive writing doesn’t have the proper slant.” For most of the 20th century, homeschooling’s greatest proponent was ultraconservative Christian historian Rousas John Rushdoony, whose 1961 book Intellectual Schizophrenia launched a fiery attack against public schooling’s “dangerous implications.” And the homeschooling trend was once largely confined to families that rejected mainstream culture, such as religious fundamentalists and a few off-the-grid radicals.
Since 2000, however, increasing numbers of urban and suburban hipsters have taken to teaching their children within their own four walls, objecting to conventional schools for various reasons (they stifle creativity, are dangerous, don’t offer a well-rounded education). In 2007 a group of Brooklyn parents formed the Revolutionary Artistic Development School, a homeschooling network complete with produce garden, scavenger hunts and spoken-word poetry. Among the blogging set, homeschooling has accentuated a chasm—dubbed the Mommy Wars—between stay-at-home mothers and those who work outside the house.
Hipsters are not a new phenomenon. The word originated in the 1940s to describe white youths emulating black jazz musicians. Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were among the original hipsters “suddenly rising and roaming America,” as Kerouac wrote. Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” paints these committed nonconformists as souls lost in the wake of World War II’s unfathomable cruelty and destruction and the newly formed shadow of “instant death by atomic war.” This knowledge, Mailer writes, changed life’s equation to a stark choice:
One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel), one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.
Hipster today refers instead to a much-maligned subset of trend followers, who scavenge thrift shops for retro trappings and posture as such rural archetypes as lumberjacks and truckers. A 2006 headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion summed up the general attitude toward them: “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster.’”
One really old thing that’s new again is the “caveman diet,” which features foods available to our Paleolithic ancestors. These hirsute forebears probably ate more foraged nuts, fruits and leaves than meat, however, because hunting was dangerous and unreliable. An abundance of meat is a relatively new luxury, and some who question whether it has been too much of a good thing are returning to the smaller portions and less-processed cuts our great-grandparents enjoyed. This increased focus has elevated the status of meat purveyors. A 2009 New York Times article about “young idols with meat cleavers” attributed to butchers the “raw, emotional appeal of an indie band.” Among the shaggy carvers profiled is Joshua Applestone, a “ponytailed butcher with a porn-star mustache” and coauthor of The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, which advises do-it-yourselfers to “get your children out of the house” before hacking apart a carcass. Some hip carnivores have omitted the middleman and gone back to hunting for their dinner. Their role models, at least in this regard, may be the magnificently bearded Robertsons, the duck call–making stars of reality show Duck Dynasty, who smear mud on their faces and scour Louisiana woodlands for something to shoot.
The beard is a holy thing. Leviticus 19:27 instructs men not to “mar the corners of thy beard.” The Amish are among those whose beards symbolize religious devotion; in 2013 the leaders of a radical sect went to prison for forcibly cutting the beards of other Amish men. The medieval Tatars and Persians battled after the latter refused to trim their beards in the Tatar style. When King Louis VII of France shaved his beard in the 1150s, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, annulled the marriage and wed the future king of England, Henry II.
Lately beards are signifiers of hipsters, who have popularized facial hair competitions. In his 2013 New York Times article “How I Became a Hipster,” Henry Alford claims to encounter a “veritable ocean of beard” when he ventures to Brooklyn. “You know you’re in hipster Brooklyn,” he explains, “when someone who looks like a 19th-century farmer tells you that his line of work is ‘affinity marketing.’” The Hasidim of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, many maintaining traditional unshorn beards and sidelocks, have decried the influx of artsy young people, bearded or no. One rabbi has characterized them as a “bitter decree from Heaven.”
Pabst Blue Ribbon, a lager first brewed in 1844 whose sales had dwindled since the late 1970s, has enjoyed a revival since becoming the hipster’s beer of choice in the early 2000s. The beer represents a stereotype some urban hipsters parody: the macho, blue-collar, unshaven outdoorsman. It’s a fitting choice of suds, since PBR has its own history of inauthenticity. In the late 1800s steamship captain Frederick Pabst started tying blue ribbons around his bottles despite never having received such an accolade. The wily captain had the last laugh when his beer was awarded America’s Best at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Pabst has not outright embraced its current scene-making clientele, preferring to quietly sponsor events involving hip groups such as Portland bike messengers and the RVA Beard League of Richmond, Virginia. One key tenet of hipsterism is rejecting the mainstream. By not marketing itself, PBR has managed to tap into a group intent on avoiding any kind of label, even the hipster label. The relationship between beers and beards got even more intimate in 2013, when Rogue Ales of Newport, Oregon, used the yeast from brewmaster John Maier’s 30-year-old beard to create its new Beard Beer.
On the forefront of hipsterism’s scruffy Appalachian look are the alt-country and bluegrass bands that have transported the banjo and fiddle music of backwoods porches to today’s city streets. The Avett Brothers, a North Carolina band headlined by siblings Scott and Seth, represent a revitalized interest in American roots music and Hatfields and McCoys–era style. The siblings jokingly acknowledge that when they don’t shave, fans frequently comment on their “controversial facial hair.” Americana has even spread across the Atlantic, where English folkies Mumford & Sons don cowboy hats and boots, and British songster Elvis Costello, known for his 1970s New Wave tunes, delved into bluegrass with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009). Competing with techno and hip-hop in city precincts, the Avett Brothers transitioned from their Southern roots to urban hipsterism with their hit 2009 song “I and Love and You.” The plaintive chorus has resonated with many a hipster: “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in.”