Is Artisanal, Handmade Food Always Better?
"Just because a conscientious, responsible pig farmer decides to make bacon, or just because a talented chef with good intentions decides he's going to make his own salumi, doesn't mean the bacon or salumi is going to be good"
A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by my local farmers' market, as I usually do on Saturday afternoons. I bought an insanely expensive half pound of bacon from a bearded dude who had the kind of sign up I can never resist: "World's Best Bacon." I plunked down my $12, feeling good that I was supporting a pig farmer who treated the pigs and his land right.
A woman came by the stand and said, "It's good, but it's really salty." The bearded pig farmer responded, "Oh, yeah, if it's too salty just soak the bacon in warm water before you cook it."
That should have been the warning sign I needed, but instead I moved on to the next stand at the market, owned by a fruit and vegetable farmer I have known for years. I bought some of his mom's low-sugar raspberry peach preserves after a lengthy discussion with him about the quality of his mom's jams.
Lastly, I bought a bag of caramel corn and a piece of apple candy from another fruit farmer. That, I ripped open before I got home. The popcorn was excellent, crunchy, salty, and just sweet enough. The caramelized apple tasted like an apple slice that had just been plucked from a tarte tatin. The popcorn and the apple left me with that warm post-farmers' market, Alice Watersian glow that I'm sure most serious eaters are familiar with.
I brought home the jam and the bacon figuring I would use them to make breakfast for my wife, Vicky, the next day. But the next morning, my hopes and dreams for a delicious breakfast were dashed when I tasted the jam—yuck. And the bacon—even yuckier. How could this be?
The bacon-seller had a beard, worn-in jeans, and a sign that said "World's Best Bacon." He was lying, or maybe he just didn't know any better. Or maybe he just didn't know what delicious was.
Maybe my farmer friend didn't want to acknowledge how bad his mom's jam was. Or again, maybe he just didn't know. Actually, I went back this past weekend and he told me the jam I despised was made by someone other than his mother. Now he tells me.
Maybe the bearded bacon man didn't know that his bacon was inedibly salty and cut so poorly it could never cook up properly.
A realization then hit me like a ton of organic broccoli—the food revolution may be upon us (and it may even be televised), but sometimes handmade, artisanal food is so bad it makes you appreciate not only the truly great artisanal food makers but also the Smuckers and Oscar Mayers of the world. The even more compelling question: Are serious eaters down with eating bad food if it's made by hand by someone with the best intentions?
This serious eater is not down with eating bad food, no matter who made it. There's a lot of bad food out in the world these days, made by people who are careful stewards of their land, ingredients, and animals, people who haven't bothered to master the craft required to produce seriously delicious food. And that's not all right with me.
Just because a conscientious, responsible pig farmer decides to make bacon, or just because a talented chef with good intentions decides he's going to make his own salumi, doesn't mean the bacon or salumi is going to be good. Making good salumi or good bacon is really hard. It requires lots and lots of practice, a strong guiding hand, and the knowledge to both make the product and know when it's good.
Salumeria Biellese makes great salumi, but the families of the owners have been making salumi for more than a hundred years. That's a lot of know-how handed down from one generation to the next. Allan Benton makes great bacon and ham, but if you've ever read an article about the dude, you know that he's insanely passionate and ridiculously conscientious and knowledgeable when it comes to making serious pig products.
It's often the same with farmers and their baked goods, breads, and jams. My local farmers' market also has a celebrated artisanal cheesemaker selling extraordinary cheese and absolutely horrendous, leaden focaccia that no one, absolutely no one, would consider delicious. When I told one of the young women working at the stand that the focaccia was pretty awful, she said, "You should taste it when it first comes out of our wood-burning oven. Then it's amazing." Unless I'm willing to leave my house at four in the morning to get to her farm at six that's not going to happen.
I'm sure my farmer friend's mom's friend is an extraordinary woman. It's just that she never learned how to make good jam, and my guess is nobody has ever told her how.
The point is, serious eaters should not and cannot assume that just because something is handmade or homemade by someone with the best of intentions that it's going to be good. And that means the disappointment we feel when we taste it will be that much more profound.
I am so down with the food revolution you have no idea. It's just that I think it's high time we realize and acknowledge that good intentions and responsible stewardship, and even passion, are not by themselves enough when it comes to making great artisanal food.
You need three things:
- Experience: Which means time allowing for lots of trial and error and sufficient apprentice time
- Time: To understand how to make it good
- Knowledge: That is, you have to know how to do something, and when it's delicious
I celebrate handmade, artisanal food as much as any serious eater I know. It just depends on whose hands are making it.