March 9, 2014
About a decade ago I wrote a little essay on what people mean when they talk about “natural food”. Now to launch right off on the obligatory tangent right from the get go, I would need to clarify: There’s really no telling what some people have in mind when they are talking about “natural food”. The whole reason I was writing on this in the first place was in response to other people who were going on about how it’s so vague that it can’t really mean anything at all. So I was just focused (like a laser beam, I might add) on being able to specify one particular set of meanings that was relevant to the question of whether high tech agriculture destroys the natural quality of foods.
So in response to all these goings on, I was going on about how in some relevant contexts, what people were really talking about was artisanal food. That is (e.g. and for example) foods that are grown, processed and prepared with keen attention to the unique features of the natural textures. Like a master carver works with the grain of the wood—going against the grain being the quintessential paradigm of the unnatural, I said—a master farmer or chef is attentive to those peculiar features of the soils, the plants and the animals that he or she is working with at the moment. Their attentiveness permits a higher level of craft and precision, and allows them to make good use of features that any automated or highly standardized approach to farming or food preparation would necessarily overlook. Hence artisanal=natural=(usually) higher quality. It was one of the few times I managed to impress my darling wife.
Cause pretty soon thereafter she noticed that the word ‘artisan’ was starting to crop up around high quality breads and cheeses. “You are not such a dope, after all,” said she. This is not [I hasten to add] a direct quote, but you get the picture.
Ah but signs of the artisanal apocalypse are now on the horizon. Yep, you got it. Depressingly like ‘sustainable’ or ‘resilient’, the artisanal seems to be headed for a rapid denouement owing to its sheer ubiquity. Now I again hasten to add, any comments I might have made last week or so about snooty in-flight magazines and their touting of artisan restaurants with their special artisan grown pancake mixes, I’m all in favor of that stuff. Go Westwind Milling go! Bring me some more of their pancakes any morning now, and let’s top them off with some of that wonderful Michigan-made artisan maple syrup. No joking here, I swear it. But perhaps, just perhaps it might be possible to carry this artisan thing too far?
And indeed I had an e-mail this week from Jenny Buckley, recently of local mid-Michigan fame but now resituated in Madison, Wisconsin. Jenny, who defended a dissertation on artisan food producers and how well they do in food safety inspections, was e-mailing to bring something to the attention of everyone one on her advisory committee, which would include yours truly. To wit: she was advising us that in the relatively more-advanced-in-terms-of-hipness community of Madison, she could now go to an artisan dentist. And I promise that, as Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up.
Frankly, I think I’ll pass on that one.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University