Artisanal Won't Die

A long, long, long time ago (like, last year) I wrote an obituary for the word artisanal. It seemed high time to declare it dead and get on with our lives. And yet, it has become clear in the months that have followed that artisanal is not dead. Artisanal may, instead, be undead.

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A long, long, long time ago (like, last year) I wrote an obituary for the word Artisanal. It seemed high time to declare the word dead and get on with our lives. And yet, it has become clear in the months that have followed that even if Artisanal did die, Artisanal has a radioactive half-life so powerful that it could for years sustain full-fledged underground communities of humans making bread from hand-picked cornhusks and locally sifted flour. Artisanal is not dead, it's undead, a whole food zombie running around feasting on artisanal brains. Artisanal, regardless of an organic beefsteak tomato through the heart or a hand-hewn bamboo stick to the brain, is eternal. Eternally damned, maybe, but sticking around and torturing us nonetheless.

But, look, according to a search via Google books' Ngram viewer (see at right) we're at slightly less peak artisanal than we were in the late '90s. It's an artisanal dip! So why does everything feel so insufferably artisanal?

Well, because (compare the word to hipster and you'll see the problem) even if artisanal might be ebbing, we are so surrounded by artisanal that it's hard to see the hand-tended forest for the individually planted trees. Let's say we reached peaked use of the phrase (in books) in the '90s and that there hasn't been an epic jump past 2010 that remains uncharted. Artisanal online is a whole other matter, as here there is infinite room for things to be artisanally discussed. And so they are, and with the popularity of the word artisanal comes more artisanal. Is the media's artisanal-hate, and the desire to mock the phrase ironically, simply breeding more artisanal? Quite possibly. This very post uses the word 40-some times. I am part of the problem, not the solution; I am a cog in the artisanal cheese-wheel.

But it's not just my fault! Here are some actual non-word things that are artisanal: Mayonnaise. Cheese, of course, cheese. Bread. Los Angeles. Entire movements. Popsicles, pickles, lemonade, soap, butter, coffee, knives, pizza, donuts, gift wrapping, chips, markets, but also stuff you buy at the 7-11, liquor chocolate, restaurants, water, yes there is artisanal water. I'm just going to stop now because it should be clear that everything that can be made artisanally is pretty much artisanal, now, and there are things that used to be artisanal that are now artisanal again. Like jerky. Well before the Slim Jim, people were making jerky at their homemade Laura Ingalls Wilder houses in the big woods, by hand—and yet, people are working to make it more artisanal now, to bring it back to its artisanal roots. There are grants being given for this, according to Laura Kusisto, writing in the Wall Street Journal"Kings County Jerky Co. is one of three recipients of $50,000 grants from the city, which were announced last night at an event in the Goldman Sachs building in Lower Manhattan. The grants also went to kd Dids, which makes knitted athletic wear, and Kombucha Brooklyn, maker of the trendy fermented health drink."

It has come to this: EVERYTHING IS ARTISANAL. Is it wrong that the jerky sounds sort of tasty, "in flavors including Korean BBQ with chili paste and sesame seeds and Szechuan flavor with fresh ginger, peppercorns and star anise"? Does this mean that our brains have been co-opted into artisanal thinking (mmmmm star anise)? Still, we can admit that artisanal as a feature of a food or a product is not inherently bad, not like hipster-bad. We like our foods and various household items and accessories to be hand-made and special instead of mass-produced and manufactured by machines! Still, the question remains: if there is a slight dampening in artisanal fervor as noted by Google books' Ngram, when do we actually get to see that decrease in phrase use in our artisanal conversations?

Artisanal and hipster (see also, "Goldman Sachs") are two words that most people will, at least in public, agree should be buried together and covered liberally with fresh earth held in the hands of skinny-jeans-wearing, ennui-riddled twentysomethings. And yet so long as we keep calling things artisanal or hipster, they never will be truly dead and gone. My beef is not with the jerky; it's with the adjective. When everything is artisanal, what will be left to make artisanal? is the question our children will be mournfully asking one another via brain lasers in the dystopia that exists 50 years hence. The great irony, though, is that someday, and maybe this day will be soon, maybe it is now, we'll have stopped needing to denote that anything is artisanal because the only oddity worth mentioning is the product that is not artisanal—i.e., that which is produced "in enormous quantities available for all often using totally newfangled and post-modern methods." Like ... cell phones. Why is no technology artisanal? Perhaps this will happen on its own, and maybe that, finally that, will be the ultimate end of artisanal. Until then, we wait, but we also acknowledge that it starts with us. Buy something prepackaged and crappy that calls itself that today.

Suggested replacement for artisanal: Things that are artesian. That word hasn't been hot since 1910. This is its fetch moment.

Image via Shutterstock by mizio70.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.