Artisanal Aspirations

On the upswing in culinary circles, the word "artisan" makes people think of small batches of food prepared with careful attention to detail. It evokes an aura of integrity, quality, and craftsmanship. Similar to the growth of farmers markets and the new demand for local foods, the rise of artisanal foods is rooted in distaste for the factory-produced, processed fare that dominates the American diet these days. It's part of the backlash against mass-market food manufacturers who have nonetheless been keen to adopt "artisan" themselves.Since 2006, more than 800 new products have included the word on their packages, according to Datamonitor, a market research company that tracks such things. Granted, food companies routinely latch onto trendy words. "Organic" has been a major one in modern times, but at least organic products must meet certain standards to make that claim. Not so with artisan. Marketers simply stick the term on a package when they wish to signify that the product is higher quality than its mainstream counterpart and (it goes without saying) more expensive.

Starbucks stocks so-called artisan breakfast sandwiches, Tostitos hawks an artisan line of chips, and Fanny May offers artisan chocolates. Even Domino's Pizza sells artisan pizzas, notwithstanding that Domino's is basically a form of fast food and fast food is the opposite of artisanal.

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Domino's at least seems a little embarrassed about its claim. The box for this pizza announces, "We're not artisans," in an old-timey font, and the copy begins, "We don't wear black berets, cook with wood-fired ovens or apprentice with the masters in Italy." Even so, the writing goes on to assert that the pizza in the box still deserves the artisan label. Domino's basically wants to have its pizza and eat it too. Admitting that it's incongruous to call assembly-line food the work of artisans doesn't excuse the claim from being absurd.