The numbers may be paltry, but NASFT's vice-president Ron Tanner thinks they're promising. "The people who are really driving this are people in their 20s and 30s," Tanner says. "It's people who grew up drinking Starbucks. If you've been eating good cheese, you're not going to start eating Velveeta."

Although older consumers may not want to spend an extra dollar or two on handmade salsa, Tanner says "artisan" evokes overwhelmingly positive associations from eaters of all ages, which helps explain why major food companies are increasingly using the word "artisan" as a synonym for "tasty." Domino's Chris Brandon says the pizza maker last year branded its new line of thin-crusted rectangular pies as "artisan" in a "tongue-in-cheek way," but makes clear the company's rationale wasn't as flimsy as the transparently fake Sicilian backdrops used to advertise its $7.99 pizzas. "[We're] getting across how special these pizzas are," he says. "We are serious about the quality of these pizzas."

Dunkin' Donuts advanced a similar argument this spring when it launched its artisan bagels, a collection that includes a sun-dried-tomato bagel smeared with reduced-fat spinach-and-artichoke cream cheese. According to its TV commercials, artisan is "Latin for really, really good."

Mark Overbay in the cookery at Big Spoon Roasters.
Mark Overbay in the cookery at Big Spoon Roasters.
Left to right: Judy Herkner Harmon, Sue Herkner Keegstra, and Lynda Herkner.
Left to right: Judy Herkner Harmon, Sue Herkner Keegstra, and Lynda Herkner.

Unamused, Marc Fintz of Davidovich Bakery in Queens filed a complaint this spring with the Federal Trade Commission, which currently defines "artisan" only in relation to American Indian art and has a policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations. "Artisan isn't an adjective, it's an action verb," Fintz says. "From our perspective, artisan means you adhere, as much as possible, to traditional methods of the origins of your product. Dunkin' Donuts has taken a position that's immoral, deceitful and wrong."

Fintz's understanding of artisanship hinges largely on scale and speed. If manufacturing equipment is moving faster than a human being can comprehend or control, the end product can't be called artisan. He cites Wonder Bread as the ultimate not-artisan baked good. "If you took a look at every slice, it's the same," he says. "Let's understand what it is: It's a chemical product, it's a commercial product."

Fintz says bakers across the country have thanked him for representing their interests, but the staunchest artisans might wonder if his outrage amounts to the pot calling the bagel kettle black. Davidovich Bakery is very much a commercial operation, turning out 25,000 bagels a day. As the wholesaler picks up more of failed bagel giant H&H's former accounts, it plans to increase production to 40,000 a day. While Davidovich uses hand-rolling techniques that wouldn't fly at a Hostess factory, it also doesn't conform to the technological restrictions that some artisans devoutly observe. "We use machinery for mixing," Fintz says. "We don't mix by hand. We use ovens. We're not firing bagels over an open fire, obviously."

By reputation, the most rigorous artisan in the country is June Taylor, the legendary San Francisco marmalade maker who studied domestic science as a north London high-schooler in the 1960s. Jam makers rarely describe their methods without invoking Taylor's name: When they confess they're considering leaving a kitchen in a manager's care or purchasing candied orange peel, they reflexively say that "June Taylor wouldn't like it."

"Everyone makes their own decisions," Taylor allows. "I'm not sitting here in judgment. I hand-make to the highest degree. I'm in there with my knife, I'm slicing my fruit. I guess there's a scale issue for me with artisanship: We cook a pot's yield. We're not using commercial pectin. We're very personally committed to our fruit."

For Taylor, artisanship implies intimacy. A true artisan is present at — and, ideally, involved in — every stage of a product's development. "I've just been to the city to pick up letterpress labels," Taylor says. "It's a key concern, paying a lot of attention to aesthetics of food and presentation."

McGreger is slightly more flexible on matters of slicing; she's installed a Robot Coupe commercial food processor in her kitchen so she can efficiently chop cabbage for her Farmer's Daughter krauts. But she interprets "artisan" much as Taylor does. "I'm judging and tasting, using all of my senses every day," McGreger says. "I'm using a lot of experience and intuition. I'm not just using a probe. It's a lot more human than that. It's something you learn and craft over time." The Robot Coupe, she adds, will never process plums for her cardamon jam or figs for her preserves. "We never run fruit through it," she says firmly. "Those shortcuts lead to a degradation of quality. Our goal is that every batch is the best batch we ever made."

Dealing in superlatives comes with a cost, as Taylor and McGreger readily acknowledge. "I know my work is not affordable for a lot of people," Taylor says. "That's a reality I had to accept and make my peace with. That's sad, because I don't have requirements that anyone buy from me regularly, but to be awakened to quality, that's what's important to me."

Taylor charges $14 for an 8-ounce jar of marmalade, conserves or fruit butter. She's threatened to title her memoirs A Jar of Jam in honor of the countless exchanges at the Ferry Plaza farmers market — and, perhaps less frequently, in her Berkeley shop — that have begun with a customer exclaiming "Fourteen dollars? For a jar of jam?"

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help