The Word “Artisanal” on the Label: Relevant or Meaningless Buzzword?December 19, 2014
It’s a cycle—a trend like pearl shakes, red velvet, milk tea or ramen blows up the food scene and becomes ubiquitous. After some time, six months, a year, or, rarely, more, one of two things happen: the trend either becomes a part of the mainstream food culture or fades into relative obscurity (RIP, Zagu). There’s a similar cycle with buzzwords used to describe food. After a period where a word seems to be plastered on to everything from bundles of asparagus to jars of peanut butter, the use of the word either becomes regulated and standardized (as in the case of organic in the US and other countries) or becomes completely meaningless (see: natural).
With everything from Domino’s pizzas to handmade breads labeled with it, it remains to be seen what fate the word artisanal will succumb to. Strictly speaking, artisanal is used to describe anything made by an artisan, “one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods” or a “worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.”
But with the ever-evolving attitudes about how food is sourced, grown, and produced, the use of the word artisanal has become a touchy and problematic subject. On one hand you have the big, bad corporations co-opting the word to sell their products to the increasingly discerning consumer. Dunkin’ Donuts introduction of their Artisanal Bagels raised a lot of eyebrows, especially in New York, the city where the bagel was created. This prompted their public relations team to defend their use of the word, relating it to “…quality food and authentic, traditional ingredients and taste.”
It’s interesting to note that the word artisanal was used by Dunkin’ Donuts to denote quality and not as a reference to production process. I think it would be safe for us to assume that their bagels are not handmade, unless the pushing of buttons on a panel qualifies.
It’s easy to declare machine-produced breakfast bread as not handmade and, therefore, artisanal by definition. But the distinction becomes harder to make when it’s not a global corporation behind the operations. June Taylor’s jams and preserves are probably at the extreme end of the artisanal spectrum. Her products are made with hand-sliced fruit and pot-sized batches, making production volumes small and retail prices sky-high. But if fruit is chopped up using a food processor and marmalades made in industrial-sized pots, is it no longer artisanal? Will artisans wanting to increase production and grow their businesses via (semi) automation have to have their imaginary artisanal credentials taken away?
And this is what is problematic about the word artisanal and all other trendy food buzzwords that have come and will come after it. Unless the use of it becomes regulated and standardized, then its definition and use will be relative at best, and misleading at its worst. Barring regulation, which may well be impossible given the subjective nature of the word, artisanal will eventually be a meaningless word deployed by marketing executives in the hope that consumers will give their product another look.
Of course, it will always come down to the taste and the quality of the end-product. Dough kneaded in a Kitchen-Aid mixer and baked in an industrial oven could still taste better than a hand-kneaded loaf made in a centuries-old wood fire oven. Good intentions and elbow grease aside, there still has to be quality ingredients, a commitment to tradition, and a passion to ensuring that the last batch of pasta, pandesal, or guava jam was the best to ever come out of that kitchen. Yes, we can get tricked into buying that granola because the label says it was made by artisan monks cloistered in a mountain retreat. But our taste buds, not the label, will tell us if we need to be praying for the eternal safety of the said monks, or if good old mass-produced supermarket oats are still the way to go.