Entries in artisanal (6)


The church of organic

A number of people forwarded me an article by Stephanie Strom that was published in the New York Times over the weekend, about the ongoing battle between organic purists and the increasingly powerful forces of Big Organic. The main character in the story is a man named Michael J. Potter, the head of the independent organic foods producer and wholesaler Eden Foods. 

The spectre of Big Organic has been haunting the industry for most of the past decade, at least since Walmart started selling truckloads of the stuff eight years ago. The rise of industrial-scale organic is what spurred the locavore movement, just as the mass-marketing of local was the impetus for the artisanal craze. 

And so there's not much new to the story -- it's pretty much the boilerplate co-optation fable, where the energetic, ambitious, DIY upstarts have their scene taken over by corporate interests, who then sell a mass-marketed version to the masses, with all the value-laden authenticity bleached out of it. In this case, the word "organic" merely takes the place of "punk". Think of Eden Foods as Henry Rollins, while Wholesome & Hearty is more like Blink 182. 

At the core of the dispute here is the setting of standards for what constitutes organic food. The big food corporations like Heinz and Kellog have come to dominate the board that approves non-organic ingredients and additives and other inputs: "At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002."

What is interesting about the debate as it plays out in this article is that the question of whether these various "synthetics" should be allowed or not is entirely political.  That is, Strom goes the entire article without ever confronting what should be the central issue, which is whether any of the controversial ingredients or inputs are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product. It's clearly seen as irrelevant to the debate: the term "sustainability" is never used in the article, which is sort of like writing about the Occupy movement withouth once using the term "inequality".

Instead, the argument over what is properly "organic" is over whether some ingredient meets some mythological standard of purity, fine-graining the ideology in the manner that was perfected by Marxists, and before them, the deeply religious. Indeed, substitute "kosher" for "organic" in this article and you get a fairly healthy sense of how the debate is playing out. The difference of course is that for orthopraxic religions like Judaism, the following of the rules for their own sake is the entire point. The rules surrounding organic are -- in theory anyway -- directed at a more practical end, like environmental sustainability or better health outcomes. 

That's why the last line of the piece is so perfect:

“People keep telling me that all the work we’re doing with organic farming and agriculture and processing, some of that could be deemed charitable work,” Michael Potter says. “Maybe we should start a church.”

I submit that he already has.


Some links for the long weekend

In blind taste test, Danish people prefer cheap frozen chicken to expensive fresh chicken.

A new ethnography of lap dancing. 

Copenhagen cuisine has entered the realm of extreme authenticity. 

Why the streets of Copenhagen are so different from ours. (Answer: Bikes)

After years of pretending to be sick to avoid military duty, young Danish men are now lying about their health problems in order to serve. 

The Authentic Brands Group manages, inter alia, the Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe brands. 

On Romney: "What the search for authenticity should not attempt to do is serve as a kind of placeholder for character".

Artisan bagel baker sues Dunkin' Donuts for calling its bagels "artisan". 

The failure of Arab liberals:

 For al-Aswany, Eltahawy, and dozens of other liberal intellectuals, the urge to maintain “authenticity” and “credibility” in the new Arab landscape—not to mention feeding the angry Twitter mobs—trumps fidelity to liberal values any day.

Authenticity and the economy of esteem

The myth of cultural irony


The End of Authenticity

All of a sudden, the authentic is on the outs. The first intimations came last summer, when a major marketing magazine declared that authenticity has lost its cachet. Then USA Today ran a piece pointing out that if Starbucks can call its breakfast sandwich “artisanal,” and if Tostitos can say the same thing about its corn chips, then maybe artisanal is just a synonym for mass-produced. But the last hand-forged nail was driven into the reclaimed-wood coffin recently when the New York Times published a long feature under the title, “All that authenticity might be getting old”...

That's from my latest column for The Ottawa Citizen.


In Praise of Pepperoni Pizza

Photo from Flickr!

Quick – finish this sentence: As American as ____

You said apple pie, right? But what if I said you couldn’t say apple. Try again:

As American as ____

Did you say pepperoni pizza? Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. But here’s the point: if you did say “pepperoni pizza”, no one would bat an eye. Because along with baseball and Coca-Cola, apple pie and cheeseburgers, few things are as – dare I say it – authentically American as pepperoni pizza.

But when it comes to the traditions of invented nostalgia and conspicuous scarcity that characterize the growing, and increasingly odious, food-tailoring movement known as “artisanal”, the unpretentiously popular pepperoni pizza is disturbingly mass-market.

The fun thing about the foodie craze is watching the inexorable ratchet of obnoxiousness. A decade ago, the organic folks were relatively harmless hippies and granola munchers who would natter at parties about pesticide use. Then five years ago the locavores arrived and turned the distance their salad traveled to their plate into a painfully earnest moral crusade. And now the artisanal movement is busy turning the every day act of feeding oneself into parody of performative gamesmanship that Stephen Potter would have loved.

Naively, I thought they would have left our pizza alone. But nooo. As the NYT reports today, “atisanal pizza joints are opening across the United States”. And if the idea of an artisanal pizza joint makes about as much sense as, I dunno,  “Heritage Doctor Pepper”, think again:

In these rarefied, wood-fired precincts, pizzas are draped with hot soppressata and salami piccante, and spicy pizza alla diavola is popular. At Boot and Shoe Service in Oakland, Calif., there is local-leek-and-potato pizza. At Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, dried cherry and orange blossom honey pizza. At Motorino in the East Village, brussels sprouts and pancetta.

But pepperoni pizza? No way. After all, pepperoni isn’t Italian, it’s American. And as Michael Ruhlman, an “expert in meat curing” (and, it transpires, total douchebag) puts it, pepperoni pizza is “a distorted reflection of a wholesome tradition”. Distorted how? By the act of selling it to someone other than smarmy stockbrokers and over-botoxed ladies who lunch, of course:

“Bread, cheese and salami is a good idea,” he said. “But America has a way of taking a good idea, mass-producing it to the point of profound mediocrity, then losing our sense of where the idea comes from.” He prefers lardo or a fine-grained salami, very thinly sliced, then laid over pizza as it comes out of the oven rather than cooked in the oven.

You know what I prefer? Normal, mediocre, pepperoni pizza. The kind you grab for $1.99 a slice at some hole in the wall on the street as you walk by on the way to meet a friend for a movie. Or that you jam into your mouth at 2:30am after a night of drinking, trying to get enough fat and carbs into your system that you don't collapse. I don't care if it's thick crust or thin crust. I don't care if the cheese is on top of the pepperoni or below it. I don't care if the pepperoni curls or lies flat. I really don't care about any of that, because eating pepperoni pizza isn't an experience, it is something you do that enables other experiences, like sitting around watching the NHL playoffs with some friends or fueling up for a late night of work or study. This is food as function, at its most prosaically and harmlessly moral.

The search for authenticity, especially when it comes at the intersection of food and nationalism, is beset by all manner of absurdities. At worst, the latent xenophobia and intolerance embedded in the very idea of “authentic culture” becomes explicit, as in the case of the Hamilton Farmers’ Market.  But more often, those tendencies reveal themselves through pretension and elitism disguised as a progressive respect for folk tradition and anti-consumerism.

There’s probably not much to be done about it, given human nature and the deep, self-hating anti-consumerist strain in Western culture.

But I really thought they’d leave our pizza alone.


hutongs, progressives, and handmade knives

1. "Black conservative" John McWhorter looks at how American lefties are unhappy with the demonization of the term "liberal", but don't much like "progressive" either.

2. Artisanal is the new organic: Do-it-yourself butchery

3. Artisanal is the new organic: Handmade cutlery

4. An update on the ongoing destruction of Beijing's hutongs:

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, some of my favourite times as a tourist, anywhere, are the hours I spent walking through the hutongs, once in 2000, and again in 2008. The difference was tremendous -- when I was there two years ago, the whole area was undergoing a massive construction boom. But there was still an undeniable authenticity to the place that was clearly disappearing.

But how much of the concern is driven by nostalgia, mostly by people who don't actually have to live there? As the article points out, lots of residents of the hutongs are happy to leave. But some aren't:

“It’s a treasure to live in a place where you know the people and where your family has lived for generations,” said Mr. Liu, 55, who shares his home with three others, including his 81-year-old father. “Who wants to live in a place where you can live next door to someone and not talk to them for years?”

Gentrification always generates gains and losses, winners and losers. The trick -- and it is a trick that is almost never successfully pulled off -- is to permit development and renovation while preserving, as much as possible, what is valuable about the old neighbourhood. I'm afraid that in this case, the hutongs will simply disappear, except for a few blocks that will no doubt be preserved as a tourist destination and a theme park of "olde Bejing".




Artisanal is the new organic (an ongoing series)

Artisanal pencil sharpening; I can't tell if it's a joke.

Raw-milk reactionaries; this really is a step backwards.