I guess it’s been about six to eight years ago that “artisanal” became the hot new menu adjective. Artisanal this, artisanal that. But let’s get down to brass tacks: We can’t even get people to pronounce it consistently. Merriam-Webster Dictionary has posted a pronunciation that is like the word “artisan” with just “uhll” on the end: ART-izz-an-uhll. Other sources say: ar-TIZZ-uhn-uhll.
What most of them don’t (and should never) say is that the correct pronunciation is ar-TEE-zhun-uhll. “Artesianal” is not a word, you see. “Artesian” is definitely a word, but it has nothing to do with the making of foodstuffs (unless your favorite handmade cheese or baguette is welling up from underground, naturally filtered through channels in rock formations). For a time, when I was a caterer, I worked for a lady — a very special lady, who was NEVER wrong — who insisted on typing, aggressively selling, finalizing and printing menus listing “artesian cheeses and breads.” Sigh.
I think “artisanal” is one of those nebulous descriptors — much like the men’s fashion term “bespoke” — that sounds super-fancy, but has a slippery definition. To most of us, I think it’s supposed to indicate immaculately sourced ingredients and extra care in the preparation thereof. I think we can all agree that a cheese or a bread could be made carefully by hand by someone we’d consider an “artisan.” (Importantly, whatever “artisanal” is describing is obligatorily made in small batches, too! Get those big, efficient batches out of here! Are you kidding?)
What prompted this column was some delicious Internet outrage about the “artisanal ice cubes” touted by the bar at Washington, D.C., eatery Second State. Second State is getting its artisanal ice cubes from the company Favourite Ice — where workers filter water, freeze it to stringent specifications and band-saw it into perfectly clear ice cubes for restaurants in the D.C. area. The bar will charge an extra dollar a whiskey drink for one of Favourite’s oversized, slow-melting, crystal-clear cubes. On the other hand, if you buy one of Second State’s $11-to-$17 mixed cocktails, you’ll get a cube for free in the drink.
Brace yourselves: I’m kind of okay with that — I mean, with the description of these cubes as “artisanal.” Whether a great ice cube that won’t dilute your bourbon too quickly is worth a dollar … well, that’s between you and Second State.
I hesitate to say that the overuse of the word “artisanal” might even be sort of a nod to hipsters and a catering to their presumptuousness. But I’ve noticed that hipster-bashing is falling out of favor right now, so I won’t bang that drum too loudly. Although I will say I saw a guy walking toward me on Bardstown Road the other day and from afar I scoffed to myself, “Wow, what a perfectly quintessential hipster douche that guy’s dressed like.” Then it turned out to be someone I knew that I am really fond of. So I think my hipster radar might need a little calibration.
Does anybody remember the late, great, 732 Social restaurant down on East Market Street? They used to hand-chisel big, oversized, spherical ice cubes for their premium liquor drinks. I’m pretty sure they told me they used boiled/filtered Louisville tap water to craft them from. I mean, Louisville tap water is some of the best in the country, am I right? And they didn’t tack on an additional charge, but I’m sure it was built into the price of the cocktail because that sort of dedication to detail takes time and does raise a guest’s experience to another level.
I’ll admit I’m pretty sure “artisanal” is being overused, and I have a little bit of a hard time not rolling my eyes when I see it on a menu, unless it’s describing actual small-batch, lengthy process products like sausage, soy sauce (like Matt Jamie’s from Bourbon Barrel Foods) or aged cheeses — or even well-done ice cubes that are a pain in the ass to make. But please don’t try to dazzle me with “artisanal cheesecake” or “artisanal coleslaw.” Those are just delicious cheesecakes and coleslaws, but they are not artisanal — no matter how well and how consistently made they are by excellent cooks who care about the end product. Not by a leathersmith (“Get your small-batch leather jerkins here!”) at a renaissance fair(e).
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Cafe Lou Lou.