Terms like “artisanal” and “farm-to-table” are used widely in our food-obsessed culture. But what do those terms really mean? Where do they come from?
Los Angeles Magazine’s award-winning restaurant critic Patric Kuh explores the origins of these movements, and profiles the mavericks and outliers who learned to make foods like cheese, bread, or beer from scratch as a way to stick it to Big Food.
What does artisanal mean?
Patric Kuh: For me, there are a few aspects to it.
- The first is time. Is the person allowing the time necessary for that flavor to really develop. Of course, with different foods, it’s different amounts of time — for bread it may twenty-four hours, for cheese it may be 8 months. Time is the one thing that can be penciled out very easily by people who want to use the term, but do not want to literally put in the time required for that flavor development.
- Does it speak to something in our heritage? This is really one of the most powerful aspects of this movement. We’re reclaiming something that already exists, so there's a real effort to reclaim what homogenized flavor, what industrialized food and what massive scale took away.
- This word artisanal is such a peculiar word. Twenty-five years ago, unless you were selling hand-punched belts in craft fairs, that was an idea of an artisan. Underneath it all, there’s an idea of the skilled human hand, the hand that has learned something that a machine can’t reproduce. And I don’t make the argument that machines play no role in this, technology is a fascinating sub-argument in the artisanal movement, but with the skilled human hand –whether it’s a cheese maker, coffee roaster, a chef—is a form of intelligence that is really inspiring to see.
What is the role for technology, if over time, machines are created that can delicately handle ingredients?
Kuh: What is technology? I became fascinated by how technology went from something positive and necessary to something we consider to be the enemy of taste.
The efficiency of technology took away from the flavor and the speed with which goods could be transported. And big manufacturers started to convince the American public that they needed this idea of food produced in mass quantity–if you really cared for your family, you went for the branded, sealed box.
Playing prophet here, what do you see as the future of artisanal? Where are we going with the trend?
Kuh: Well, this fascination with small will continue, the whole vocabulary of artisanal, if you pay attention, is really centered around the idea of scale. There are single-batch, microbreweries and nanobreweries, but I think we’ve come a long way, and scale is the future.
Patric Kuh, author of the book, “Finding the Flavors We Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, How Artisans Reclaimed American Food” (Ecco, 2016), and food critic at Los Angeles Magazine