Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Deep Thought: Artisan Bread?

ar·ti·san (ärtə zən, -sən)
a worker in a skilled trade; craftsman
Etymology: Fr < It artigiano; ult. < L ars,

It may be only children and pedants who believe that once a word is codified coded into a more than one dictionary its meaning becomes fixed and immutable. But nothing could be further from the truth. Consider the word fuck (Click the link, you'll split a gut. I promise!) which can mean virtually anything depending upon the context in which it occurs.
The word artisan, which in its nominative form indicates a person who is skilled in a trade and works largely with his hands and hand tools, can actually refer to someone with only enough skill to operate a dough mixer or cut and slash a loaf of bread in exactly the same way ten thousand times a day. Although, as some sources indicate, there is an assumption of variability in expression or uniqueness associated with each product made by an artisan, this notion while charming, appears not to be true of some of the products available to contemporary consumers of artisanal products.

For example, this loaf of artisan bread purchased at the local supermarket, looked just like all the other loaves of the same type ("French"). It was the same color, and shaped and slashed in precisely the same way. In fact, if the label did not indicate that it was hand made by an artisan, one would swear that it was the product of some form of automated baking process.

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Bob said...

In this case, artisan bread must mean bread that artisans eat, which I assume is because they're too busy to get bread MADE BY artisans.

maurarose said...

Although, as some sources indicate, there is an assumption of variability in expression or uniqueness associated with each product made by an artisan, this notion while charming, appears not to be true of some of the products available to contemporary consumers of artisanal products.

And that's a reasonable assumption. The bread in the photos was originally artisan bread, and I guess you could say that whatever is sold out of the bakery that produces it is artisan (oh, bad syntax); but the bread that's shipped to grocery stores all over the country is not artisan.

I'm not saying it's crappy bread. Before I went back to baking my own, I bought it all the time. It was the best bread available in Durham. (Not known for high quality bread. I bought much better in central PA.) But, no, it's not artisan.

philintexas said...

Bless you Bob for the f-word link. I DID indeed bust a gut; hilarious!! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.--Phil

Scotty said...

But Grasshopper, your thesis requires the assumption that the manufacturer, retailer, or the gods of the USDA and FDA give a frak what the dictionary says. If it isn't defined by the feds, it doesn't exist. That's why Wonder can market that stuff as "bread".

Nomenclature and food labeling are a major pet peeve of mine.I recently spoke a college journalism class on the subject of food policy. It drifted to this subject, and the definition of "organic". After some discussion, I suggested that the only thing worse than no definition, is for industry lobbyists and Federal bureaucrats to define the term for us.

danwalk said...

Lovely post. In the brilliant 1935 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Walter Benjamin writes eloquently about the ease with which art could now be reproduced, giving lithography, photography, and cinema as prime examples. Technological advances allowed (and still allow) what was once a unique artistic object to be reproduced infinitely.

But for Benjamin, this was not without a cost. Reproductions--no matter how faithful to the original--lack one important element: the "aura" of the first.

From the essay: "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence."

The fact that we speak of artisan bread at all shows that we now take for granted the idea that bread is almost always (and therefore by default) mechanically (re-)produced. Mechanically produced bread is just "bread" for much of this country. "Artisan bread" is "somehow" (and I'm still wrestling with how) the opposite.

When I write "good bread" on my grocery list (and that is really what I write), I mean artisan bread that I do not buy at the grocery store. Is this "good bread (re-)produced mechanically at a local bakery? Probably. But it seems to have a bit more of an aura. And it therefore tastes better.

IdahoRocks said...

Loved the Fuck video, but so many mis-spellings....

Artisan, hmmm, our Farmer's Market features "artisan" breads, but frankly, I prefer my own baked loaves to anything offered there.... In fact, I prefer La Brea bakery factory produced loaves to anything made locally, because it's either too dry or too airy.

I do make La Brea bakery sourdough white bread, as featured in the La Brea Bakery cookbook. Indeed, I find Silverton's descriptions tell me much more than other recipes and I've come to rely on her more than any other bread cookbook.

Thanks for the linguistic information. You do have an anthropologist/linguist inside of you which surfaces frequently in your blogs....

rockandroller said...

Sounds like "artisan" has come to mean about as much as "natural" on food packaging.

Jennie/Tikka said...

Artisan or machine-made, they're BOTH off my menu these days. FUCK!


Lazy baker said...

That's a fucking horrible loaf!

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