Recently, this East Coaster was vacationing in sunny California when what to her wondering eyes should appear? A hot dog stand. “Hey!” she thought to herself, “a little piece of New York right here in Northern Cali!”. The similarities sort of ended there. Oh, they were selling hot dogs on buns and all that jazz, but the sign read:
“Artisanal grass fed Angus hot dogs”
What? Are you freaking kidding me?
I get it. The better the animal is fed, the better the end product. But we’re talking about hot dogs here, probably one of the tastiest, yet nastiest foods known to man. Okay, so these are made from a good quality beef and the cow was fed well. So this is one Grade A, kick ass hot dog!
But what about the “artisanal” part? Throughout my travels in Northern California, it came up a lot. There was artisanal bread and cheese, even “air-chilled” chicken. Full disclosure – we are still laughing about that one. It’s a running joke. “Would you like fries with that?” “Sure, but are they air-chilled?”
So what exactly does “air-chilled” refer to?
According to chow.com, the primary process for cooling poultry is to submerge it in a chlorinated water bath, while the alternate method is to cool it with blasts of air, or “air chilling” it.
Now, which would you rather have? I’ll have my chicken air chilled please. Hilarious, yes. Prudent, definitely!
Now let’s move on to “artisanal”. When I returned home to New Jersey, I noticed there was artisanal deli meat in the case at my local grocery store. It didn’t look particularly special. It looked like ham. The term is being thrown around so often that it’s a regular bit on the popular comedy show Portlandia, which sends up Portland’s hipster community.
Terms like “free range”, “organic” and for heaven’s sake, is it local?? seem to all of a sudden be of utmost importance to the foodie community, or is it the community at large? Free range is important. If we’re going to be carnivorous, the ethical treatment of animals is of major consideration. Organic? Also of considerable import, as we are aware of the dangers of pesticides. But local…is it local? How local? Was it locally sourced? Is it sustainable? Was it “hand tossed”?
Merriam-Webster defines “artisan” as “one that produces something in limited quantities often using traditional methods.”
And that’s at the heart of the issue. There are indeed small farms that produce their product by hand, using traditional methods who are selling that product locally. The problem begins when large corporations turn out mass quantities of product, calling it “artisinal” as a marketing ploy to increase price points.
How do we know if what we’re getting is actually artisinal?
That’s where the questions come in. “Is it locally sourced and grass fed?” There seems to be a disparity among actual small business artisans and major corporations as to what the term actually means. Corporations will claim it has to do with a traditional old world flavor and “process”, although they’re sketchy about what that process actually entails. While the actual artisan will tell you it’s about quality, making the product in small batches by hand, using traditional methods.
The same issue can be raised with regard to the oft used term “gourmet”. That’s been thrown around for a couple of decades now. George Carlin did an absolutely brilliant bit on it.
The definition of “gourmet” is a connoisseur of food. Therefore, the term, is used as an adjective to describe good quality food.
So you can see where there is an awful lot of gray area where “gourmet” is concerned. Now that everybody from your 89 year old Aunt Ezmerelda to your 4 year old niece Pookie is watching Guy Fieri gas on about good eatin’, they all think they’re “gourmets” too. Ever overhear a conversation at the next table when you’re at a restaurant? Some of these people think just because they watched five seasons of Top Chef they’re honorary graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. Listen people, just because you know what an amuse-bouche is, doesn’t mean you should behave like an amusing douche. Get what I’m saying? You’re not a gourmet, and that fire roasted, tequila marinated hamburger on a brioche roll you’re about to polish off at TGI-whatever the F’s is definitely not gourmet. It’s a fancy burger in a chain restaurant.
What can I say? Carlin inspires me.
So. What have we learned my friends? I think it’s that, like with many things in our society, especially pertaining to the exploitation of a great many words in the English language, the words “artisinal” and “gourmet” mean very little when they’ve been appropriated by the masses, watered down and freshly ground peppered throughout our sentences. They still do very much mean something within the actual artisan community and among culinary professionals and connoisseurs.
Just like “awesome” used to refer to an awe inspiring mountain range, gourmet used to be the foie gras at Le Cirque.
On the same Northern California vacation, I pointed out the famous half moon rock at Yosemite to my children. “There” I marveled, “now that is awesome!”. And then a half hour later my son looked at me and said “That pizza was awesome!”