Foodie Underground: Is it Artisan?

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ColumnWhat does the word “artisan” actually mean?

Artisan: the poster child word for the food movement. Slap “artisan” on something and you’ll immediately draw a crowd. Goat cheese or artisan goat cheese? Strawberry preserves or artisan strawberry preserves? Charcuterie plate or artisan charcuterie plate? You tell me which one sounds more attractive.

The word artisan invokes certain images. “Some European guy crafting away in a kitchen creating something healthy,” said my friend John when I asked him what came to mind.

“I think of a goat farm,” replied Alison, another friend taking part in the conversation.

A conversation ensued about what we eat and how we eat it. And what we look for when we buy food.

Handmade. Small batch. Quality. The list of attributes to the word “artisan” goes on, but what does the word really mean? As John added, “but whenever I think of ‘artisan’ I think of Safeway.”

If Safeway, a large chain with numerous outlets, has co-opted the word, has it lost its meaning? Is “artisan” the greenwashing of the food movement?

This is a thought that has crossed my mind frequently while traveling through France, the country whose food culture I hold in high esteem; a country of local producers and diners that have an appreciation for what they consume.

In a small French village – the kind that’s enclosed by stone walls and can only by accessed by going over a moat – in the Pyrenees I found a sign advertising “Miel dégustation du producteur,” tasting of local honey. 500 grams for only 7.50 euros. Cheap for something that’s good and local. Oh thank you France, for giving me a sign that’s so iconic it’s almost cliché.

Above the sign was another noting the store’s sale of “confitures artisanales” – artisan jams. In one small grocery store, the only one within the city walls, there were practically more local products than a Portland farmers market. The refrigerator in the back was filled with smelly unwrapped cheese and sausage from the French/Spanish border.

But I had to wonder; did the sign emphasizing the local specialties aim to attract a certain clientele that was already predisposed to being in search of such delicacies? Ultimately, isn’t even the artisan world all just about marketing?

artisan crepes et glaces

We live in such a globalized, mono-cropped, GMO-infused, mechanized society where products made by hand, in small batches are no longer the norm. Long meals are rare, and eating a vegetable that your neighbor grew is even less so. All things that were once very normal today are practically foreign.

Globalization and the industrial revolution have left us with larger yields, and the ability to feed more people, more efficiently, but on our path to bigger, better and faster, we have lost many things along the way. To put it simply: we have replaced what we once used to be able to do ourselves with technology in a quest for simplicity and ease.

Even in a country like France that is notorious for its sale of specialty regional products – take the right exit off of the freeway and you might even find them in a truck stop – there is a problem of agribusiness and monoculture. The government might be better about regulating GMOs, but that is simply because of the fact they still exist. The romanticized view of the bucolic farm setting with a local paysan is harder and harder to find. And yet, when we are in a certain position that gives us the luxury of choice, that’s exactly what we want.

We are seduced by the idea of something being made directly by someone’s hands. Why? We don’t make anything with our hands anymore. We spend our days texting and emailing and computing numbers. When was the last time you created something with your own bare hands? Built something? Dug in the earth? Cooking is our last chance to reconnect with what we were meant to do: physical labor. It’s our thirty minutes a day that most of us disconnect from everything else and commit to the creation of a single (ok, maybe several, if there’s a side and main dish, and maybe even dessert, involved), and that is part of the reason we have an inherent draw to products that are made… by hand.

We live comfortable lifestyles. In our globalized world, we are so spoiled that we are accustomed to being able to eat oranges at all times of the year. Hell, I bought a Florida grapefruit the other morning because I was craving one instead of a croissant. Healthy? Yes. Local? Certainly not.

“Artisan” isn’t just a buzzword, it’s an attachment to a lifestyle that was once the norm, but in our modern day world, it’s a lifestyle that has nearly been lost. Unless we bring it back from the brink of extinction. Support the producer, support the cause.

The pull of “artisan” products is that there was an individual involved, not just a business or a corporate collection of people. Just like we should all get off of our email and sit down with our friends for coffee, we have to devote more time to real conversations with real people. If the words “artisan” and “organic” are obsolete in their meanings, we must look to something else to inform our decisions, and human to human contact is exponentially more informative than a nutrition label.

Talk to your farmer. Talk to your neighbor. Talk to the owner of your local grocery store. Know what you’re buying, not because you looked at the word that was slapped on the front of the package, but because you asked a question. If we are in a place to be making a decision about our food, we have the obligation to do so.

Artisan honey tasting in a small French town? Yes. But not because it says artisan. Because you know where it comes from, the person that made it and that it was made with love and intention.

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.

Photo Credit: Anna Brones

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