Artisan food for mass consumption

Should we still call it "artisan"?

Very few big-city artisans mess with frozen fruit and co-packers, linchpins of the Herkners' ambitious business plan. Although small-scale producers defend their choices as quality-driven, many of them privately admit they're fearful that other artisans will dismiss their work if they don't personally slice their fruit and stir their pots.

"I've heard other jam makers say that using a co-packer 'doesn't feel very artisan,' so I worry that I'll be turned out of the artisan club if I consider that option — even though our local co-packer is pretty hands-on and I would be present," says Rebecca Staffel, who uses the term "artisan" to market the award-winning preserves she sells under the Deluxe Foods label. "We recently bought a big chopper for our rhubarb and apples. Does that mean I can't say the jam is completely handcrafted anymore? I worry about the shocking exposé sometimes."

Staffel is trying to find smart ways to grow her Seattle company. But plenty of talented chutney makers, kombucha technicians, and mustard mixers are deliberately keeping their businesses as tiny as the market will allow. They painstakingly sink local asparagus spears into brine perfumed with lavender blooms and hand-grind organic, fair-trade vanilla beans for cocktail bitters, a bottle of which sells for three times the price of a Bud Light six-pack.

Top: Brian Ellison at his Death's Door Spirits distillery. Below: Washington Island farms near Lake Michigan.
Courtesy of Death's Door Spirits
Top: Brian Ellison at his Death's Door Spirits distillery. Below: Washington Island farms near Lake Michigan.
Matt Jamie's Bourbon Barrel Foods products have changed the way sorghum farmers see their crop
Chris Witzke
Matt Jamie's Bourbon Barrel Foods products have changed the way sorghum farmers see their crop

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 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.

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 assembled in a faceless factory overseas. "They'll buy something like ours compared to something commercial any day," Herkner says.

The notion of artisan food isn't new. When in 1842 Messrs. Hughes and Potter of New London, Connecticut, alerted People's Advocate readers to "a superior article of root beer" which they intended to deliver "fresh and pure" by cart to subscribers, or when Mr. Kimball of New York City announced in an 1831 issue of the Evening Post that he'd produced rosewater "for imparting a flavour to conserves" that was "entirely free of any artificial compound," they were appealing to their prospective customers' appetites for clean, safe, individualized 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 many chain stores.

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

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 artisan-oriented 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 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 two-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's 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."

By reputation, the most rigorous artisan in the country is June Taylor, the legendary San Francisco marmalade maker who studied domestic science as a north London high-schooler in the 1960s. Jam makers rarely describe their methods without invoking Taylor's name: When they confess they're considering leaving a kitchen in a manager's care or purchasing candied orange peel, they reflexively say that "June Taylor wouldn't like it."

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