January 2, 2013

Soup to Nuts: Artisanal schmizanal

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It's become almost a routine part of our weekly features staff meetings.

The last time it happened, I was talking about an event where there would be artisanal marshmallows for sale.

My colleague Ray Routhier did a classic spit take, followed by a couple of loud guffaws.

"Artisanal marshmallows????" he exclaimed as the whole room joined in the laughter.

Yes, it doesn't matter what I'm talking about in the meeting anymore -- pickles, licorice, potato chips -- invariably my co-workers look at me and, with a smirk on their faces, ask "Is it artisanal?"

"Is it an artisanal taco?"

"Is it artisanal gravy?"

It's like working with a bunch of fourth graders, yes, but fourth graders who kind of have a point: Aren't we all kind of tired of the word artisanal? I mean, when Domino's and Dunkin Donuts start using the word to describe pizza and donuts, isn't it time to give it a rest?

Artisanal used to mean handmade, probably crafted in small batches. It was a mark of quality. After a while, although the word has nothing to do with health, it took on something of a cachet. If something was artisanal, it was probably good for you, too, just because it didn't come out of a big factory in the Midwest.

But marshmallows are still sugar, no matter how much organic, free-trade, yadda yadda sugar you use to make them.

The A-word doesn't really mean much anymore. Earlier this year in The Atlantic, Jen Doll wrote a deliciously funny obituary for artisanal, who "died Wednesday at his brownstone in Brooklyn overlooking a small gourmet mayonnaise store."

"He is survived by his wife, Organic, and their two small boys, Natural and Green," Doll wrote, "as well as his cousin Hipster, though the two had fallen out in the '70s and were no longer on speaking terms."

Yes, artisanal has jumped the shark, another phrase that has, well, you know.

Signs of the Artisanal Apocalypse are everywhere. (Hipsters and shameless marketing professionals take note: That's Artisanal Apocalypse, not Artisan Apocalypse. Yes, artisan can be used as an adjective, but it just looks stupid.)

In local grocery chains, round loaves of "artisan bread" shipped from across the country are presented to shoppers in open bags, as if they were just pulled out of a wood-fired oven by some 20-something, overeducated, bearded baker named Seth or Gunther.

To me, that bread doesn't say "handcrafted" and "healthy," it says "germy" and "ohmigod, who else has touched this thing?"

When Maine Public Broadcasting held a Downton Abbey-themed soiree in December, the first item on the menu was, apparently, artisanal cheese. Really? Can you picture Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (aka actress Maggie Smith), saying: "Mr. Bates, fetch me the artisanal cheese before you head off to jail?"

Last spring, Dunkin Donuts decided to change its bagel formula and started making "artisan bagels" in flavors like sun-dried tomato and pumpkernickel. A New York bagel baker promptly took legal action.

When Domino's started a line of artisan pizzas, it at least tried to make a little fun of itself. But seriously, when did a pizza with spinach and feta on it become something so exotic and, um, artisanal?

The next big trend appears to be the humongous brewing companies making "craft" beers and hard ciders, which were formerly the purview of bored husbands and boyfriends hanging out in their garages. ("Craft" is the boozier version of "artisanal.")

Pretty soon, artisanal will be just like the word natural, which means absolutely nothing, as I discovered when reporting a column on the terminology found on egg cartons. Tip: If you want to eat eggs from chickens that have been treated well, you have to look for the label "Certified Humane." Words like "natural" and "artisanal" are only there to make you feel better about paying 100 percent more for your morning eggs.

(Continued on page 2)

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