the artisanal movement, and 10 things that define it

artisanal breadThe artisanal movement has come to cheese, salt, bread, pickles, quick serve restaurants, chocolate, beer, olive oil, ice cream and stoves. Yes, stoves.

In 2004, several bread makers lost sales, including Private labels (-5.6%), Interstate Brands, George Weston, Sara Lee and General Mills (-14%).  Sales for La Brea Bakery, on the other hand, were up 38.7%.

La Brea Bakery calls itself “America’s Great Artisan Bakery.”  Here’s the way they tell the story.

Back in 1989, La Brea Bakery changed the way people ate bread in Los Angeles.  Those beautiful artisan loaves baked for centuries in Europe had yet to make their way to the states.  The only bread available was the flavorless, squishy white rectangle that came pre-sliced in a bag. Little did we know that when we began producing our crusty varieties such as olive, walnut or rosemary that we were about to embark on an American bread revolution.

It’s the anthropologist’s job to see the cultural components of this trend.  I think there are 10 of them.  The artisanal movement is composed of and driven by:

1. a preference for things that are human scale.

If once we delighted in the sheer scale of a consumer society, now we want things made in tiny batches.  In the place of Morton Salt that comes from some vast industrial process, some of us prefer artisanal salt.  Pam bought salt recently that came with a talkative, 4 color, brochure.  Geez, I wondered, what is there to say about salt?.  Plenty, apparently.   The first paragraph reads:

The production of premium sea salt takes time and attention to detail. Each small batch of sea salt requires weeks of hand panning and grading to produce the perfect grain.  Our quality is a testimonial to the artisan nature of this age-old craft.

I have had a team of ordinary language philosophers working on the last proposition for several days now.  No one can make head nor tail of it.

2.  a preference for things that are hand made.  Sorry, hand panned!

If once we delighted in machine manufacture, now we want things made by humans.  The weird thing here is that things that were handmade, especially things that bore the mark of manual manufacture, these were contemptible.  One of the nastiest things we could say about a gentleman in the 16th century is that made his wealth by dint of manual labor.  Indeed, the first thing a gentleman did was remove his family from all proximity to industry.

In the contemporary version of this notion, it is as if we believe that artisans are “free range,” happier in their work and more likely to deliver quality. (This too is stuffed with dangerous assumption.  The philosophers just looked at me when I asked for exposition.)

3. a preference for things that are relatively raw and untransformed.

The nobility of early modern and modern Europe delighted in things that were ornate and highly crafted.  Calling something “artificial” was a way to praise it.

This aspect of the movement owes something to the hippie revolution of the 1960s, a moment in which Adele Davis encouraged people to protect their food even from the interference caused by light!  (I had a girlfriend in the 1970s who kept everything in the fridge in a brown paper bag.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the light went off when you closed the door.)  No transformation was the best transformation.  The closer food was to its natural, uncooked state the better.

4. a preference for things that are unbranded.

This is really an odd one for we are still a culture that treats brands as navigational devices in a turbulent culture.  But now cheese from a farmer’s market is better for the fact that it is not branded.  This too takes as full circle, for in 18th and 19th century America, consumers were buying from barrels.  Brands came in as a welcome innovation.

It turns out that Marx was right.  (Finally.)  The meaning of the object comes from the act of manufacture, not the act of marketing and consumption. And now I have a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you.  For the artisinal movement is yet another act of meaning manufacture, driven perhaps by new enthusiasms but shaped at every step by marketing.  For starters, this thing we call artisanal production almost certainly relies on mechanics, scale, and artifice. The “artisanal” is yet another cultural meaning that marketers assign to goods.

5. a preference for things that are personalized.

The best example here perhaps is the farmer’s market.  We are no longer buying from a vast supermarket that has contracted with agribusiness. Now we want to see the face of the man who grew the food and shake his hand.  We prefer to deal with a small retailer, someone who calls us by our first name, and knows our tastes so well, he sets things aside awaiting our arrival on Saturday morning.  It is as if we have declared war on anonymity.  It is as if we are attempting to “reenchant” the world with personalization.  (The term is Weber’s.)

6. a preference for a new transparency

It is as if we want to know, or to know of, all the parties who grow, transport, sell and resell the food on our table.  This is not the same as wishing to live in  personalized world.  This is a matter of disclosure.  We know where our food has been.  This is one of the things that drives the slow food movement and the Alice Waters Chez Panisse regime.

7. a preference for things that are “authentic”

There is an idea that the food chain has been poisoned by artificial notions of food, and that only a return to “authentic” menu items, foodstuffs, and cooking methods can save us.  The James Beard website praises “an artisanal movement that’s bringing back flavors of a world untainted by Wonder-bread and Kraft singles.”

8. a preference for things that have been marked by locality

This is in a sense the new branding.  If we prefer cheese that is unbranded, all cheeses threaten to become one.  Locality, which may or may not make a difference to taste, is commandeered and pressed into service.

Here is Sally Bany, co-owner and brand manager for the west coast chocolate company, Moonstruck.

“We add chili pepper to it and it becomes a  conversation piece for the sales person. ‘Have you tried this  particular chocolate. It has these flavors because it’s grown in this region.’ People learn where in the world it came from, the variety and taste characteristics.”

9. a preference for the new connoisseurship

Artisanal products are not without a certain claim to sophistication. Artisanal salt, cheese, bread, these are all better than their non-artisanal equivalents, and any discerning palate can tell this is so.

There is, in other words, a kind of connoisseurship at work.  But it is a roomy connoisseurship.  Unlike French wine, there are no rules and regs that constrain how something is served, how long it must breathe, or the food with which it may be eaten.  There are no real demands for reverence.  Artisanal foods can be served and eaten in any way.  No special forks required.

Artisanal food allows us be discerning without actually requiring us to learn anything.  We get to be special without being specialized.  To this extent artisanal food helps play out our expressive individualism.

10.  a preference for the simplified

All of the properties that help to make something artisanal are seen to simplify the product, the producer, the act of buying and the act of consumption.  Artisanal is the enemy of artifice and complexity.  It returns us to a simpler world.  There is to this extent a certain nostalgia about the artisanal.  It harkens back to another time, another world.  Never mind that the happy world of honest artisans engaged in unalienated labor exists only in the mind of the Marxist history.  We can harken after it anyhow.

Artisans may or may not have made the new “artisanal” cheese, bread, and salt in our kitchen.  But our culture certainly had a hand in their production.


Bill O’Connor, CEO, Source/Inc.

Paul Rogers, author of the article noted below.


Ness, Carol.  2006.  Slow Food Movement has global outreach.  Farmers, producers share knowledge at Italy convention.  San Francisco Chronicle.  October 30, 2006. here.

Rogers, Paul.  2004. Special Report: U.S. State of the [Candy] Industry.  Candy Industry. here.

Bread sales figures here.

La Brea self description here.

the James Beard quote here.

22 thoughts on “the artisanal movement, and 10 things that define it

  1. dilys

    “…as if we believe that artisans are ‘free range,’ happier in their work and more likely to deliver quality.” Heh. The Marx alienation-of-labor theme here, baked with a lot of Rousseau, a spun-sugar statuette of Marie Antoinette in shepherdess costume on the top of the whole-grain cake.

    Plus the cult of the amateur — “one of the nastiest things we could say about a gentleman in the 16th century is that made his wealth by dint of manual labor” — has long shown up via the fringes of Art’n’Commerce, e.g. the music biz, when making any money is “selling out” [until hip-hop.] Perhaps the associated adopted identity could be styled *Aristocratic Marxist*, rather like the Socialist Peer figure in modern English novels. Rightly subject to a wry smile when it shows up as the “Crunchy Con” phenomenon.

    Artisanal bread does taste better; but I’ve given up on certain flavorless Whole Foods produce, compared to Safeway and Texas’ HEB. Selecting within those systems, however, it’s true the smaller out-of-date stores are preferable on the “human scale” and “familiarity” vectors.

    I think we can expect the suggestion of artisanality, random introduction of bumps and surface flaws on things via computer design, by the mass-produced pallet-load.

  2. Steve Portigal

    Awesome list. I wrote a parallel analysis in of our local organic produce delivery. There is a tremendous conflation of these good-feelin’ facets and it’s a continuous exercise to sort them out. In addition to your list I would add a few more…something about the pleasure of supporting a small business/the pleasure of supporting a local business.

    Those are different from each other, and they are different from some of the examples in your list. In addition to being known by name (what they give me) there’s something that I am doing to improve my world/my community (what I give them) that is an emotional benefit.

    As well, there’s an empowerment in finding alternatives to “the man” aka Corporate America. Just the sense of freedom in breaking away from the mandated options in some mundane activities.

    It’s interesting, from a marketing and meaning-making perspective, that these words like “artisinal” “small-batch” “hand-anything” “craft” “organic” emerge with such power and at the same time ambiguity.

  3. Pingback: Leading Questions

  4. Tommy Stinson

    Thanks for this – it’s interesting.

    To Steve’s point, I think there is an argument (and it would be interesting to see research to confirm or disprove this) for the existence of an underlying “ethic of community” in this. So many of the product attributes come down to local, personal, authentic (knowable), open & accessible – much the same list for the (re)emergence of plugging into one’s community as a source of authentic identity.

  5. Carol Gee

    I think also that this movement has a subtle link to the nostalgia connected with childhood memories. Each of us probably had more “old fashioned” things in our young lives, just because it was not as modern, “back then.” But at its core it has to do with good quality.

  6. steve

    My visceral reaction to the list is: There sure are a lot of pretentious people out there! If it tastes better, great, but cmon. Why aren’t the food chemists at XYZ corporation equally “artisanal” in their artful concoction of formulae and test-loaves.

    It also seems to me that this set of values is nothing new–it’s just that as incomes rise, there’s a bigger class of people who can afford to forego the economies of mass production and distribution. I suspect the long-run problem for this movement will come when the large-scale producers can exceed the artisans on physical attributes, so that consumers will be forced to give up taste and texture (as well as convenience and affordability) to get that artisanal meaning-rush.

  7. gugoda

    A big part of the allure of artisanal goods seems to be because they connect people to an old-world time. How does this association or set of assocoations become so strongly established when most people alive today didn’t actually experience this time themselves? It suggests a strange form of nostalgia when it is for attachment to something people have no direct connection to (does this make it some kind of myth?) Perhaps it is a hunger for a sense of place so lacking in a fast-moving, modern world punctuated by transience and temporariness in the agents of meaning.

  8. Pingback: livingbrands

  9. Pingback: New Persuasion

  10. Toni Gunnison

    Excellent post (as always), and not to nit-pick, but I must make the argument that “non-branded” farmer’s market cheeses are in fact a brand. I guess this would depend on how one defines a brand but (at least here in Madison) the most elite brand available to the foodies is to say “Oh, I got this from the Farmer’s Market”. This implies you have the very freshest and best quality product, with a minimal contibution to chemical (pesticide) use or consumption of packaging and fossil fuels used to deliver the product. It instantly makes you cooler than those poor saps that go to Whole Foods.

  11. Joshua Marchesi

    Interesting post, but I wonder if there are key elements of how Artisinal movements function and how they begin that have been left out. Any Artisinal movement (and this really isn’t the first time this has happened historically) starts with a reaction to something that is perceived as “lost,” usually relating to individuality. Some fields (such as furniture or jewelry) have always been driven by the artisinal approach in the modern age, because of the impossibility of the extraordinary in a “manufactured” product. If everything is identical, nothing can be exemplary, no matter how good the base product may be. In a consumer society people are always driven to have something better than their peers, and a Tiffany necklace is always going to outrank something bought at the local chain jewelers, because Tiffany are perceived as artists, not craftsmen.

    Which brings me to my second point: The root word in artisinal is ART. The desire for creating and/or experiencing art in people’s lives is, I would argue, inherent in the human condition, but understanding of what art is varies wildly from period to period. In a time when access to the arts is progressively more limited (cost, funding, proximity, changed educational priorities) and complexity is draining away from a lot of our art in the interest of marketability, people look for artistic experiences in other ways, consciously or not, and something that has traditionally been seen as a craft becomes an art form. The desire for artisinal products can thus stem from wanting something that is as much a piece of art as it is the actual product.

    Does artisinal sea salt taste different than sea salt bought at the supermarket? Unless it’s flavored, probably not, but it was ostensibly created by someone who has dedicated their life to perfecting the art of creating sea salt. It is beautiful in a way that a box labelled sea salt on a shelf in a long aisle full of generic products will never be, and the person who spent hours sifting and drying it has had an experience that feels very similar to that of a visual artist.

    Finally, while it is important to recognize that there are a lot of bandwagon artisans out there (including some major corporations who acquire or launch artisinal lines), the original impulse for this type of change in the market is a shortcoming in what is generally available. A good, crusty loaf of fresh baked bread DOES taste better than a slice of white bread; most (but definitely not all) organic foods DO contain fewer chemicals, trans-fats, empty calories and processed sugar; and vegetables picked ripe that morning DO taste better than something that ripened in the back of a truck on its way across the country. Who wouldn’t want to eat something that tastes better and is better for you?

    The problem with any artisinal movement, then, isn’t that it is by nature pretentious or silly. It’s that the original reasons for desiring an artisinal product tend to get lost in the prestige of using them, and that any consumer movement that shows market viability tends to get absorbed into the mainstream and diluted.

    Whew… All that made me hungry. Any one up for a baguette and some local goat cheese and apples?

  12. Grant

    To one and all, these comments are, I believe, absolute proof that the purpose of This Blog Sits At… is to provide a nutrient rich broth of ideas for smarter, more interesting people (than me) to feast upon. Thank you. Best, Grant

  13. Leon

    Interesting indeed. A few years ago, I worked on bread and bakery products all over Europe.

    A few added comments:
    – bread is the Christian food by excellence (God did not multiply croissants).

    – the baker is a sacred character, alchemist of pure and sacred elementals: cereals, salt, water and fire… no less.

    – it was commonly thought in the past that each bread was different because the bakers were different: they did not smell the same…

    – It is not surprising then that bread was actually one of first food to be touched by the return to traditional values, especially in countries where rurality is a deep cultural trait (ex.France)

    – one could add cultural differentiations to the analysis (countries, Catholic/Protestant, etc) to get a better picture of the movement.

    Good work…!

  14. DC1974

    In the cult of authenticity which has developed along with the industry, but there is a side issue of objectifying the laborer as an object of desire that predates this. The sexual idea of the “pure” artisan is perhaps what attracted masters to the slaves. William Morris is thought to have been gay and was greatly attracted to the aesthetics of the trade laborers’ physique.

  15. ellen

    This is my first visit to the site… I believe that the artisanal movement is important not only because of the above but because of the importance of ‘making’ in all cultures. Also, while I don’t agree with a lot of marx (ore remember), the idea of alienation of labour that occurs when we cannot see the connetion between making (working) and product, contributes to a sense of psychological alientation from our labour. In craft tradtions (hence artisans) the materiality of the medium and hence the place are very important (eg ceramics and clay, carpentry and wood sources, food and ecology. Artisan is a reminder & manifestation of concreteness and sensuosness in a hyper post modern world full of abstractions (which is especially typified by most econcomic theory).

  16. Joe

    I live in a strawbale-insulated, hand-cut timber-frame home, constructed by skilled people of whom many have become friends. In my experiences – living in a handmade home, eating off of pottery handmade by a neighbor, gathering to eat a common meal in my cohousing neighborhood, I feel I’ve gotten a glimpse of a more human-scale economy, and I’ve found it to be more meaningful and satisfying than my more anonymous transactions in “McWorld”. I hope the artisanal movement grows in an authentic way, in concert with the relocalizing of our economies as fossil fuels dwindle, to help undo the excesses of industrialization. Perhaps I’m being too earnest for the blogosphere – but I find it hard to be cynical about this important subject. Thanks for the list.

  17. Pingback: Janus Thinking

  18. Pingback: Tito’s versus Sailor Jerry (new cliches in the world of marketing) :: CultureBy – Grant McCracken

  19. Pingback: Low Fidelity culture :: CultureBy – Grant McCracken

  20. Pingback: Sunday Mornings Get Healthier Thanks To Fresh52 Farmer’s Market | Dee Jacobpito

Comments are closed.