On “Artisanal” and “Sustainable”

As I’m researching and writing my book Small Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Cheese, Chocolate, Pickles, and Alcoholic Spirits, I purposely chose the term “artisanal” in part because it seemed to be the best to represent that handmade, small batch, high-quality aspect that I expected from the small companies I planned to profile. While that term has been continually bastardized in the past few years – even Frito Lay offers “artisanal” snack goods, very likely rolling off the same mechanized production line as their non-artisanal counterparts – I have yet to come across a term that represents, in its truest form, the same overarching attention to detail that artisanal goods represent.

The term artisanal comes from the Italian word “artigiano”, which means an artisan or craftsman, and is understood to mean someone who makes a specific product or provides a specialized service with a high degree of skill. Artisanal thus is defined, in its broadest sense, as a product that is made by an artisan, and is most properly used to describe something that is hand-made, unique, and high-quality – the very opposite of mass-produced. It was the industrialization of America’s food system – with its cheap meat and dairy, bland vegetables and proliferation of processed foods – that many believed sparked a growing revolution back towards personal gardens, small farms, and traditional forms of food preparation and preservation.

The dozen or so artisans (who don’t always embrace that moniker, I’ll note, in part because of the recent bastardization and/or perceived connotations of the term in recent years) I’ve interviewed – and I will be interviewing perhaps a dozen more –share certain values, despite the sometimes disparateness of their industries: they all have a desire to be as close to the ingredients and production of their end-products as possible and they all have a deep commitment to quality.  For almost all, this includes close attention to all aspects of production, from sourcing of ingredients to grinding, mashing, mixing, distilling, fermenting, and aging, to the literal and visual aspects of packaging. Many artisans had a close connection to their chosen industry – whether it was a recipe passed down from a grandmother, or an industry once important to an ancestor’s way of life. Others developed a more recent love or appreciation of their product, and sought to find ways to produce something they felt proud of, and represented their own values surrounding this food or drink item that they – and countless others – love. And all, without fail, have learned to become very conscious of the business aspect of being an artisan. For some that meant starting their company with a strong business plan, for others that meant a crash course in accounting or marketing along the way.

Which brings me to the idea of sustainability. As my ideas and ideals on local eating have evolved, I have come to embrace the term “sustainable” to describe the food system I strive to support. Mirriam Webster has updated their dictionary definition to include sustainable as “a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged; b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods” – which is the spirit in which I use the term. However, the definition of “sustainable” meaning “the ability to keep, prolong” is often the manner in which many of these small businesses use the word. Frequently the founders to which I spoke noted that they believe in sustainable resources or a sustainable industry – with the intent that they wanted to preserve high quality of resources needed to make their product, contribute to a more positive physical and working environment for those who help harvest these resources, and are committed to both the history and longevity of many perspectives expressed in their chosen industry. However they recognize that to be able to do so, they must make their business sustainable in the more often used sense of the word: they must be able to stay in business. Or as one artisan put it – “we won’t be helping anyone if we don’t have our own platform to stand on in the form of a sustainable business model.”

These issues and others I am pondering and addressing as I continue to write this book and interview and profile more artisans. What I do hope to answer – and what I have gotten many similar perspectives on – is the current definition of artisanal, as it has been reclaimed in the past decade: “highlighting resources and ingredients,” “telling a story with your product,” “an art, a personal touch,” “a sense of hand-made-ness” – along with a not-infrequent sentiment of “not-always accessible” and “can sound elitist,” despite the similarities in philosophy of production.

But, whatever we call the goods themselves – “artisanal”, “craft”, “small batch”, or something else entirely – the philosophy among the crafts-men and –women is very much the same: to produce something with thoughtfulness, quality, attention to detail and care, to others who also care about the same thing.

*If you have any favorite artisanal or small batch pickle, cheese, chocolate or alcoholic spirits makers in the United States, please let me know at locavoreinthecity at gmail dot com!


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