The artisanal movement has come to cheese, salt, bread, pickles, quick serve restaurants, chocolate, beer, olive oil, ice cream and stoves. Yes, stoves.
In 2004, several bread makers lost sales, including Private labels (-5.6%), Interstate Brands, George Weston, Sara Lee and General Mills (-14%). Sales for La Brea Bakery, on the other hand, were up 38.7%.
La Brea Bakery calls itself “America’s Great Artisan Bakery.” Here’s the way they tell the story.
Back in 1989, La Brea Bakery changed the way people ate bread in Los Angeles. Those beautiful artisan loaves baked for centuries in Europe had yet to make their way to the states. The only bread available was the flavorless, squishy white rectangle that came pre-sliced in a bag. Little did we know that when we began producing our crusty varieties such as olive, walnut or rosemary that we were about to embark on an American bread revolution.
It’s the anthropologist’s job to see the cultural components of this trend. I think there are 10 of them. The artisanal movement is composed of and driven by:
1. a preference for things that are human scale.
If once we delighted in the sheer scale of a consumer society, now we want things made in tiny batches. In the place of Morton Salt that comes from some vast industrial process, some of us prefer artisanal salt. Pam bought salt recently that came with a talkative, 4 color, brochure. Geez, I wondered, what is there to say about salt?. Plenty, apparently. The first paragraph reads:
The production of premium sea salt takes time and attention to detail. Each small batch of sea salt requires weeks of hand panning and grading to produce the perfect grain. Our quality is a testimonial to the artisan nature of this age-old craft.
I have had a team of ordinary language philosophers working on the last proposition for several days now. No one can make head nor tail of it.
2. a preference for things that are hand made. Sorry, hand panned!
If once we delighted in machine manufacture, now we want things made by humans. The weird thing here is that things that were handmade, especially things that bore the mark of manual manufacture, these were contemptible. One of the nastiest things we could say about a gentleman in the 16th century is that made his wealth by dint of manual labor. Indeed, the first thing a gentleman did was remove his family from all proximity to industry.
In the contemporary version of this notion, it is as if we believe that artisans are “free range,” happier in their work and more likely to deliver quality. (This too is stuffed with dangerous assumption. The philosophers just looked at me when I asked for exposition.)
3. a preference for things that are relatively raw and untransformed.
The nobility of early modern and modern Europe delighted in things that were ornate and highly crafted. Calling something “artificial” was a way to praise it.
This aspect of the movement owes something to the hippie revolution of the 1960s, a moment in which Adele Davis encouraged people to protect their food even from the interference caused by light! (I had a girlfriend in the 1970s who kept everything in the fridge in a brown paper bag. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the light went off when you closed the door.) No transformation was the best transformation. The closer food was to its natural, uncooked state the better.
4. a preference for things that are unbranded.
This is really an odd one for we are still a culture that treats brands as navigational devices in a turbulent culture. But now cheese from a farmer’s market is better for the fact that it is not branded. This too takes as full circle, for in 18th and 19th century America, consumers were buying from barrels. Brands came in as a welcome innovation.
It turns out that Marx was right. (Finally.) The meaning of the object comes from the act of manufacture, not the act of marketing and consumption. And now I have a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you. For the artisinal movement is yet another act of meaning manufacture, driven perhaps by new enthusiasms but shaped at every step by marketing. For starters, this thing we call artisanal production almost certainly relies on mechanics, scale, and artifice. The “artisanal” is yet another cultural meaning that marketers assign to goods.
5. a preference for things that are personalized.
The best example here perhaps is the farmer’s market. We are no longer buying from a vast supermarket that has contracted with agribusiness. Now we want to see the face of the man who grew the food and shake his hand. We prefer to deal with a small retailer, someone who calls us by our first name, and knows our tastes so well, he sets things aside awaiting our arrival on Saturday morning. It is as if we have declared war on anonymity. It is as if we are attempting to “reenchant” the world with personalization. (The term is Weber’s.)
6. a preference for a new transparency
It is as if we want to know, or to know of, all the parties who grow, transport, sell and resell the food on our table. This is not the same as wishing to live in personalized world. This is a matter of disclosure. We know where our food has been. This is one of the things that drives the slow food movement and the Alice Waters Chez Panisse regime.
7. a preference for things that are “authentic”
There is an idea that the food chain has been poisoned by artificial notions of food, and that only a return to “authentic” menu items, foodstuffs, and cooking methods can save us. The James Beard website praises “an artisanal movement that’s bringing back flavors of a world untainted by Wonder-bread and Kraft singles.”
8. a preference for things that have been marked by locality
This is in a sense the new branding. If we prefer cheese that is unbranded, all cheeses threaten to become one. Locality, which may or may not make a difference to taste, is commandeered and pressed into service.
Here is Sally Bany, co-owner and brand manager for the west coast chocolate company, Moonstruck.
“We add chili pepper to it and it becomes a conversation piece for the sales person. ‘Have you tried this particular chocolate. It has these flavors because it’s grown in this region.’ People learn where in the world it came from, the variety and taste characteristics.”
9. a preference for the new connoisseurship
Artisanal products are not without a certain claim to sophistication. Artisanal salt, cheese, bread, these are all better than their non-artisanal equivalents, and any discerning palate can tell this is so.
There is, in other words, a kind of connoisseurship at work. But it is a roomy connoisseurship. Unlike French wine, there are no rules and regs that constrain how something is served, how long it must breathe, or the food with which it may be eaten. There are no real demands for reverence. Artisanal foods can be served and eaten in any way. No special forks required.
Artisanal food allows us be discerning without actually requiring us to learn anything. We get to be special without being specialized. To this extent artisanal food helps play out our expressive individualism.
10. a preference for the simplified
All of the properties that help to make something artisanal are seen to simplify the product, the producer, the act of buying and the act of consumption. Artisanal is the enemy of artifice and complexity. It returns us to a simpler world. There is to this extent a certain nostalgia about the artisanal. It harkens back to another time, another world. Never mind that the happy world of honest artisans engaged in unalienated labor exists only in the mind of the Marxist historian. We can harken after it anyhow.
Artisans may or may not have made the new “artisanal” cheese, bread, and salt in our kitchen. But our culture certainly had a hand in their production.
Bill O’Connor, CEO, Source/Inc.
Paul Rogers, author of the article noted below.
Ness, Carol. 2006. Slow Food Movement has global outreach. Farmers, producers share knowledge at Italy convention. San Francisco Chronicle. October 30, 2006. here.
Rogers, Paul. 2004. Special Report: U.S. State of the [Candy] Industry. Candy Industry. here.
[This essay first published in November, 2006.]
Here’s a timeline for events that shaped the Artisanal movement. The column on the left colored in blue represented the pre-artisanal era, the one in which prepared and packaged foods triumphed. In red, we see the rise of the Artisanal. In green, on the right, are small indications that the artisanal trend might be loosing some of its grip on contemporary culture.