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The Artisanal Irony: The Mass-Produced Hand-Crafted Food Dilemma 

Wednesday, Jun 27 2012
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"It's totally obnoxious, because there's no cultural relevance," says Joe Schroeder, who helps North Carolina farmers translate their crops into artisan products.

Still, artisans' self-absorbed antics have succeeded in attracting outsized attention. Portlandia and The Daily Show have loudly poked fun at hipsters' reverence for vinegar and local quince, and a recent New York Times feature derisively quoted an artisan groupie who "doesn't care" whether or not Koreans actually eat tacos, so long as the kimchi-salsa maker has a good story to share.

Yet while the noun "artisan" is ripe for parody, the adjective has somehow managed to acquire commercial cachet. Domino's, Sargento, Tostitos, and Dunkin' Donuts have lately tagged their pizzas, shredded cheese, chips, and bagels with the label, well aware that sales of specialty food products shot up 19 percent between 2009 and 2011. Empire Mayonnaise, an emblematically precious Brooklyn outfit, can only make its black-garlic spread in exceptionally limited quantities, but the desire for authentic, handcrafted excellence has clearly trickled down to those who can't buy the mayo.In the South and Midwest, food producers are taking full advantage of the opportunities their angst-ridden, tale-spinning brethren on the coasts have helped create. They're salvaging generations-old recipes, buying raw ingredients from farmers desperate for new income sources, and selling the results to eaters suddenly hungry for food that isn't factory-assembled. "They'll buy something like ours compared to something commercial any day," Herkner says.

Far from the heated "pickle wars" that North Brooklynites swear are the creation of excitable food bloggers, the heartland's artisans are calmly and subtly steering the nation's food system in the direction that makers of nitrate-free chile lime jerky and vegan foie gras wish it would go.

The notion of artisan food isn't new. When in 1842 Messrs. Hughes and Potter of New London, Conn., alerted People's Advocate readers to "a superior article of root beer" which they intended to deliver "fresh and pure" by cart to subscribers, they were appealing to their prospective customers' appetites for clean, safe food. Some of the earliest artisans' names survive on products first devised as high-quality, small-batch antidotes to perceived shabbiness in the standard food supply: Edmund McIlhenny, Jim Beam, Domingo Ghirardelli, and J.M. Smucker's products can now be found in most grocery stores.

Yet "artisan" as a culinary come-on is a fairly new addition to the lexicon. "I'm trying to remember if that was a word in 2007 when I started," says April McGreger, a respected pickle- and preserve-maker based in Hillsborough, N.C. Until the turn of the current decade, artisans were usually people who stitched leather bracelets or threw pots. But the term started to creep into food conversations via the business cards and cookbooks of cheesemakers and bread bakers as early as 2000. Artisan food "is made by hand using traditional methods," the San Francisco Chronicle explained in 2009.

Once in circulation, the word was flypaper for publicists and book publishers, who this year plan to release The Artisan Soda Workshop, Artisan Vegan Cheese, An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat, Artisan Pasta, and The Artisan Marshmallow, among other titles. As nebulous food terms go, though, "artisan" is still not nearly as familiar as "organic" or "local." A 2011 study by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) found that 26 percent of specialty-food consumers seek out artisan products, compared to the 55 percent who gravitate toward organic labels. A mere 1 percent of shoppers who don't regularly buy specialty foods say they care whether they're buying artisanal, and organizers of the Good Food Awards, a 2-year-old project to recognize the nation's finest artisan foods, estimate that half of 1 percent of food purchases could be classified as artisan.

The numbers may be paltry, but NASFT Vice President Ron Tanner thinks they're promising. "The people who are really driving this are people in their 20s and 30s," Tanner says. "It's people who grew up drinking Starbucks. If you've been eating good cheese, you're not going to start eating Velveeta."

Although older consumers may not want to spend extra on handmade salsa, Tanner says "artisan" evokes positive associations from eaters, which helps explain why major food companies are increasingly using the word as a synonym for "tasty." Domino's Chris Brandon says the pizza maker last year branded thin-crusted rectangular pies as "artisan" in a "tongue-in-cheek way," but makes clear the company's rationale wasn't as flimsy as the fake Sicilian backdrops used to advertise its pizzas. "[We're] getting across how special these pizzas are," he says. "We are serious about the quality."

Dunkin' Donuts advanced a similar argument this spring when it launched its artisan bagels, a collection that includes a sun-dried-tomato bagel smeared with reduced-fat spinach-and-artichoke cream cheese. According to its TV commercials, artisan is "Latin for really, really good."

Unamused, Marc Fintz of Davidovich Bakery in Queens, N.Y., filed a complaint this spring with the Federal Trade Commission, which currently defines "artisan" only in relation to Native American art and has a policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations. "Artisan isn't an adjective, it's an action verb," Fintz says. "From our perspective, artisan means you adhere, as much as possible, to traditional methods of the origins of your product. Dunkin' Donuts has taken a position that's immoral, deceitful, and wrong."

Fintz's understanding of artisanship hinges largely on scale and speed. If manufacturing equipment is moving faster than a human being can comprehend or control, the end product can't be called artisan. He cites Wonder Bread as the ultimate not-artisan baked good. "If you took a look at every slice, it's the same," he says. "It's a chemical product, it's a commercial product."

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Hanna Raskin

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