A food writer considers what artisanship really means.
“I see the word artisan everywhere,” notes Los Angeles Magazine restaurant critic and former restaurant cook Kuh (The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: The Coming of Age of American Restaurants, 2001, etc.), winner of the James Beard Award for Writing on Food. Although he acknowledges that the word points to concern with “different ideas that hover around flavor, such as integrity and intent,” he worries that it has lost its meaning. Artisanship, he argues in his lively look at food production, “begins after all as a craft, and one that has to be learned, often the hard way.” Food craft always involves technology, he writes. “Many of the hand-fashioned skills we celebrate were useful forms of technology in their day.” Kuh investigates the history of bourbon, baking soda, and beer to highlight innovations that changed production. The column still, for example, introduced in Kentucky in the 1830s, was a “marked improvement” over pot still corn whiskey because it made liquor output purer. Baking soda replaced the time-consuming, arduous work of maintaining a starter to culture yeast. “Keeping this going could be a hassle” in regions where climates changed throughout the year. As for beer, Kuh admires the proficiency of megabrewers, but he sees that the craft movement has “found an irrepressible joy in processes and steps that had been rendered obsolete.” Nevertheless, he asserts that commercial food producers still can “affirm scrupulously executed craft.” The author offers profiles of many determined artisans, including cheese-makers starting small on a Michigan farm; a southern Californian who dreamed of producing, in Los Angeles, bread she had learned to bake in Paris; and two friends who wanted to start a Jewish deli in Ann Arbor. Each saw their efforts grow into thriving businesses—evidence, Kuh concludes, of the success of an artisanal revolution.
A thoughtful, informative journey into the transforming—and transformative—world of food.