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.

Tostitos has a line of "Artisan Recipes" that feature chips in flavors like "Fire-Roasted Chipotle" and "Roasted Garlic and Black Bean." They are made with nine grains and "100 percent natural ingredients." What did I just say about the word natural?

Even real artisans need to lay off the word artisanal for a while. Don't get me wrong, it's great that you are trying to do the right thing, and we do appreciate your craftsmanship. But do we really need to know that the bread you just made came from wheat sown by your great-great-grandmother Clara and was made with a recipe passed down from generation to generation in a Mason jar stored under the floorboards of your Uncle Ned's log cabin? (Was that an artisanal log cabin?)

Sometimes reading product information from local food purveyors is like falling into that episode of Portlandia where the restaurant has a complete dossier on each chicken it serves, and you find out the next bird in line to be cooked is named Colin. (Yes, he ate local, certified organic grains on a farm just 30 minutes from the restaurant, but did he have any friends?)

Maine is fortunate to have so many you-know-what food products at our fingertips. When Portland chef Rob Evans was on the Martha Stewart Show in 2010, he brought along some of his favorite "Maine Artisanal Foods," and there wasn't an imposter in the bunch. He introduced Stewart to Coffee By Design, Maine Beer Company, Maine Mead Works, Morse's Sauerkraut, Raye's Mustard, Sweet Marguerites chocolates, Tibbetts Mushrooms and potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm.

Wait, can sauerkraut really be artisanal? Wouldn't a better word just be homemade? Or, if you want to get really fancy, maybe hand-crafted?

Here's the description of Morse's on Stewart's website: "The company produces fresh sauerkraut that is made with Maine-grown cabbage, has no preservatives, and is hand packed with its own brine straight from the same barrel in which the raw cabbage fermented."

Hand packed with its own brine.

Oh, well, alrighty then.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad

 

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