Tag Archives: co-optation

Don’t Mourn the Death of “Artisan”

It seems like Mass media has finally figured out that “artisan” is an unregulated, practically meaningless term. I guess Jack in the Box, Dominos, and Tostitos have a way of really taking the romance out of a word.

Time magazine, sensing that people are actually reading about food these days, has had two short pieces on “artisan” in the last 6 months: “Wanna Help Sell a Food Product? Toss in the Word ‘Artisan’” and
The “Artisan” Hoax: Has That Word Become Meaningless?

See also 2 minutes in to this video on the Daily Show

(Hmmm, the embed is not working for some reason. Here’s a link)

I consider myself an original hater of the word “artisan.” Though I will admit to using it occasionally – usually to appease a customer who is fixated on the term – it has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, even when I was a board member for the California Artisan Cheese Guild it annoyed me. One of the reviews of Cheesemonger that I was most proud of cited my “picking apart” of the term “artisan” as “delicious”. I won’t repeat what I’ve already written about both the flaws of using unregulated terms and the irony of hearkening back to pre-industrial times as the good old days, but – as with anything in our economic system – words like this will always be co-opted as soon as Big Food starts losing market share.

In the natural foods world, many small companies became hugely successful creating products in opposition to the processed foods that dominate U.S. supermarkets. Now, of course, many of those companies are owned by the huge corporations* that also make that processed food. Also, increasingly the “artisan” American cheese companies that helped bring us the cheese revolution of the last twenty years are being bought by larger European companies.**

Which doesn’t mean that things are hopeless for people wanting to make hand-crafted, high quality cheese. “Artisan” is just a word and an obfuscating one at best. I’ve always thought that in many ways the microbrew, craft beer model is more applicable to cheese*** than the wine business model, and Big Beer tried to do all sorts of fake micro-brews but the small beer business is solid.****. Once people taste handcrafted, well-made, well-aged cheese, they are hard to fool with imposters.

Really, in the end, the taste speaks for itself. We don’t need words like “artisan” when we have actual quality.

*2009 chart here:OrganicT30J09
**I think this is preferable to those companies closing up shop, for the record. But, can you say a product is local if its owned by the French? For that matter, are you buying local if you shop at a chain grocery store owned in another state? I say the answer to both these questions is “no”.
***It is a shame that for obvious reasons cheese cannot — like small brewers –adopt “craft” as a term to describe itself.
****Timely article alert! I saw this after I wrote this post.