Art, artisans, and artisanal grilled cheese

Megatrender John Naisbitt was right a generation ago, the Monitor's language columnist concludes: A high-tech society values the 'high-touch' skills of artisans.

I confidently predict that 2010 will be a year of clean living for me – but if it's not, my friends and family cannot be blamed. Over this holiday season just past, I received from them four different gifts of some form of soap.

Each gift is lovely in its own way. But one word in particular on the package of one of them, some botanical soaps from Tuscany, has caught my eye: artigianale, or, to translate from the Italian, artisanal.

It's a word I've been seeing a lot of lately. And it makes me think John Naisbitt was right. He's the futurist whose bestselling 1982 book "Megatrends" included the catchphrase "high tech/high touch." The idea was that in an era of computerized mass production, handmade objects, with all their human imperfections, would enjoy a certain cachet. The imperfections would be treasured as a sign of the human touch.

Thus greeting cards made of handmade paper, with their raggedy edges, typically command high prices. Fashionable restaurants may serve unapologetically lumpy mashed potatoes as a way of positioning themselves outside the industrial food chain. All sorts of other consumables and comestibles, from my Tuscan soaps to cheese, chocolates, jams, jellies, breads, and other baked goods, are part of this phenomenon. And since "imperfect," "raggedy," and "lumpy" don't have much panache, the adjective that marketers often recruit to sell these endearingly dearer goods is "artisanal."

Art, as an English word, goes back to the early 13th century, when it meant "skill as a result of learning or practice." The word came into English via Old French from Latin, and goes back to a notion of things "fitted together" or "joined."

By the early 17th century, art had come to mean "skill in the creative arts," and later, those arts themselves – painting, sculpture, and so on. About this time, art also picked up a darker tone, referring to "cunning and trickery." Craft, long a fellow traveler with art, underwent a similar shift. Rooted in Germanic idea of "strength" (which lives on in our English term kraft paper), crafty once meant "skillful." By 1200 it had come to mean "cunning or sly."

Artisan came into English in the 1530s, from Italian. (So my Tuscan soapmakers are right in the thick of the tradition.) An artisan was one instructed in the "arts," what we today might call "skilled trades."

Artisanal is the adjective. It refers to products made in small quantities according to traditional methods.

I've noticed "artisanal" on the wrappers of loaves of bread in the supermarket and on the sides of delivery trucks hauling various specialty goods. But artisanal has made headlines lately, at least in New York, in connection with the move this month of an upscale flea market, the Brooklyn Flea, to the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank building. Thus the New York Observer headline, "Brooklyn Flea Brings State of Mind, Artisanal Chocolates to One Hanson Place."

Artisanal often suggests taking an everyday pleasure to the next level. Thus, one enthusiastic foodie's quip: "There are few things more plainly satisfying than a grilled cheese sandwich – except, perhaps, an artisanal grilled cheese sandwich."

I might suggest a "grilled artisanal cheese sandwich" instead. I suppose it comes down to whether it's the making of the cheese or the grilling of the sandwich that calls forth the skill of the artisan.

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