What does it mean to be an ‘artisan’ food producer?

10 May 2012 - 4:22pm -- Gerry Danby
Humpty Dumpty

A little while ago I wrote about the debasement of ordinary words and their exploitation for pure commercial advantage. Dominos Pizza leads the pack as it cynically pushes the ‘Dominos Artisan Pizza’ and presumably relies on no lesser authority than Lewis Carrol’s Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all.' (see Chapter VI)

Only maybe now the tide is turning with the news that Davidovich Bakery in New York is taking on Dunkin Donuts for the deceptive and misleading use of the descriptor ‘Artisan Bagels’ on their products. Davidovich has filed complaints with the authorities to stop the abuse of the term ‘artisan’ which read:

“For Dunkin Donuts to use the term “Artisan” as the cornerstone of their campaign is patently deceptive and misleading to the public. The term is used to increase the marketability of the product by applying a label to it that does not match the characteristics of the manufacturing of the product. It creates the perception that their products are produced by hand, using traditional methods in small quantities. This is not the case. In addition to deceiving the public, the campaign devalues and dilutes the value of true Artisan products like those produced by our company and thousands of Artisan Bakers around the country. The public, as a result of the campaign, will cease to understand the true meaning of the term and its proper application-this is cause for great confusion and harm.”

It’s only fair to point out that Davidovich itself is no high street bakery, it is a wholesale bakery operating on some scale but does make the claim that “(w)e are the only wholesale bakery left employing Artisan Bakers who still kettle boil bagels and bake them on wooden planks in a rotational shelf oven.” What’s more, when it came to the taste test Dunkin Donuts proved to be no competition, the quality of Davidovich bagels was all too apparent.

Davidovich Bagels

Davidovich Bakery - true artisan bagels

Davidovich focuses on process as the defining characteristic of ‘artisan’, but for me it goes much deeper. Lori de Mori captured the essential qualities of being a culinary artisan in her book Beaneaters & Bread Soup:

“A kind of personal integrity that can be confused with eccentricity: ‘however strange it may seem to you, this is the way I do things’.

Pride without arrogance: a sincere belief in the excellence of their work.

Humility and steadfastness: the ability to light the wood stove, milk the ewes, coax the bees out of their hives – quietly, without pretence – day after day, year after year.

The belief that their work is not a means to something else, but one of the ways to give meaning to their lives.

Genius: the brilliance that comes to those driven by their personal vision rather than by a desire for success, money or fame.

Generosity: they have no secrets. If you appreciate what they do, they’ll tell you everything they know … and usually set a place for you at their table.”

That's a lot to live up to and maybe it's more aspirational than a standard, but it works for me.

So integrity, pride, humility, belief, genius and generosity. Do Dominos, Dunkin Donuts and the rest make the grade? Silly question of course, they all fall at the first hurdle of ‘integrity’. But ought we not also to hold Dominos et al up to account and ridicule them for passing themselves off as ‘artisan’ under the authority of Humpty Dumpty? It’s unrealistic to expect Davidovich or any true artisan to take on sophisticated well-funded corporate legal departments, but we could all help educate one another as to the true meaning of ‘artisan’ and have a little fun at Domino et al's expense.

Best of luck to Davidovich, I am right with you, but I can’t help thinking you’ve a mountain to climb.

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