Artisans and Decadence

As someone who enjoys fiddling around with words, I have always found in interesting to consider how food is described, either on menus or on packaged goods.  Here the copywriter has a very limited space to convey as many messages as possible: smell, taste/mouth feel (silky, creamy, hot, spicy), audio (crispy, crackling), sight (beauty shot of food), and various emotional hooks (i.e. home-cooked, indulgent, decadent).  Decadent is a particularly interesting word, since, to me, this should have a basically negative connotation, such as corrupt, immoral or orgiastic behavior, i.e. within the realm of Romans feeding Christians to the lions and then seeing the collapse of their empire.  Now I routinely see this word describing chocolate.  I imagine some junior marketing person sitting in a cubicle, and the art director throws him a package of cookies and says, “Ok kid, here’s your chance.  Come up with some way to make these chocolate chip cookies sound different, and you can’t use the word “home style” because that is what the competitor is doing.  And the client wants to charge a premium price, so we need to make it sound like the cookies are worth it, but you can’t use the word “gourmet” since everyone uses that word – it has been done to death.”

 So the kid starts thumbing though the thesaurus to find some verbiage and the word “rich” leads to the word “indulgent” and that leads to tame fringes of the word “decadent” – and ba-da-bing! an advertising campaign is born.  The cookies are portrayed as a naughty treat to great acclaim and the copywriter includes this success as a line item on her resume.  But the success is short lived since the client fails to copyright the term, and pretty soon everyone is using the word decadent, and once again the copywriter, now an art director, is asked to come up with some way to distinguish a line of desserts and ice cream.  But at this point her creativity is spent and once high flying career has stalled out.  She can only come up with this feeble attempt to ramp up the decadence.  Instead of “purely” decadent, I might suggest “No Doubt About It Decadent” or “Roman Empire Decadent.”

A stroll through the grocery store illustrates how marketers use basically meaningless terms to try and capture your attention.  Safeway’s cookies and deserts use multiple different strategies to hope that one resonates with the customer.  In addition to decadent, cookies and desserts are variously describes as home-style, indulgent or gourmet.  Adding an international flair seems to be another strategy.  We have Belgian style éclairs, and cookies with Canadian maple syrup and crème brûlée that is imported from France.  The trio of accent marks on crème brûlée is a nice touch, but personally importing a dessert consisting of eggs, butter and crème would leave an inappropriate carbon footprint.  To me it is discouraging that these strategies work – last week on an impulse Nick picked up a pie at the grocery store with the label “French silk pie with whipped topping and decadent chocolate.”  Upon further review, French silk was just a come-on since the pie was made from some sort of faux chocolate, the whipped topping was not cream, and the decadent chocolate referred only to the little chocolate shavings decorating the top. 

A restaurant menu is another fertile ground for word dissection; I have found that almost every ingredient comes with an often meaningless adjective.  If you go to the local diner, the menu might just list BLT, and the gum snapping waitress with the nicotine breath asks if you want in on wheat or white, toasted or not.  As you move upward in the restaurant world, the description of the BLT gets increasingly pretentious until you get something along the lines of:

“Hand-carved apple-wood smoked bacon, a medley of crisp seasonal field greens, vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, topped with home-made aioli-infused mayonnaise, served on artisan multi-grained seminola bread.” 

 You have just moved from a $5.00 to $15.00 sandwich with a marginal improvement in taste.     

The word artisan now seems to be getting a workout on restaurant menus to create the image of something locally unique, food that is crafted on a small scale.  Similar to decadent, the word has a specific meaning to me that is best illustrated by the following scene:

Antoinette rarely looked into the mirror as she got dressed, but instead focused on her wedding picture from 50 years ago, when she was young and almost pretty and that mole on her left cheek had not grown so big and sprouted two hairs, one stiff and bent, the other limply hanging down.  Now she was shortened and stooped by the hard work of mothering 11 of her 13 surviving children, and saddened by the death of her husband Étienne in a threshing accident 10 years ago.  Since that time, she had only worn a dark blue or black knitted shirt and skirt.  While she always wore thick black stockings outside, at home she shuffled around in slippers, revealing twisted varicose veins, thickly calloused heels and yellowed toenails. 

Wednesday was always market day, when she brought ingredients for her bread.  Antoinette was always greeted warmly in the shops and occasionally villagers would peek over at her as she shopped, since many were convinced that she had a secret ingredient in her bread.  Her bread was locally famous and she had been asked for the recipe many times, but had always refused.  Even her daughters, cooking beside here, could not produce the signature bread.  When her children and grandchildren gathered together on holidays, she baked for several days and the smell of her bread wafted through the entire town.  Bread brought the family together.  All 27 would crowd into the kitchen, dining room and living room reminiscing as they dipped their bread into olive oil, slathered it with butter, made turkey stuffing or French toast. 

Once day Antoinette was sitting in the kitchen as her youngest granddaughter Colette played under the table.  “Regarde, Grandmère, regarde!  Your foot looks just like your bread!  And indeed it did.  The thick white and cracked calloused heel looked like the lightly floured tops of the bread.From that day forward, the bread was called “Pain du Pied.”  As the family spread farther and farther, there were many weeks where Antoinette had nobody to bake for, and her daughter Suzette suggested that Antoinette could supply the bread to the local restaurants. 

“Go ahead and call it Pain du Pied, Maman.  Let’s give it a special name in case you get famous.” 

Suzette was very savvy and trademarked the name, and then took the bread to the nearby restaurant.  Pierre, the manager at the restaurant, had always thought that Suzette was très jolie, so he agreed to serve the bread on a trial basis.  In a historic coincidence, that very night a secret food critic was eating at the restaurant since his car had broken down on the way to the Michelin 2 star restaurant in the neighboring town.  The next day, the critic trumpeted his discovery in his column,  swooning over the perfect crustiness that gave way to the perfect interior chewiness, with a sweet yet sour “je ne sais quoi.”  Pain du Pied went viral and soon the small town was overflowing with eager gourmands, who eventually awarded the restaurant 3 Michelin stars, but also warned that if the bread was not available, the meal was ordinary at best.  Suzette, whose husband owned the restaurant, and whose boyfriend was the chef, begged her mother to expand her operations, get a commercial kitchen, hire bakers, and create a “du Pied” franchise.  But Antoinette refused, stating that each loaf was an individual work of art that could not be compromised.     

So there it is; that is, or at least was the definition of an artisan.  Now I have seen references to “artisan salt,” good old NaCL, has gotten the VIP treatment.  And Starbucks is featuring an “Artisan Breakfast Sandwich.”  When I asked one of the baristas what this meant, she just shrugged her shoulders and suggested that it was an empty marketing term.  Worldwide,  Starbucks now has some 16,000 stores around the globe, and each is potentially offering artisan sandwiches, a scale that must outstrip even the most generous definition of artisan.  Much like gourmet and decadent, marketing has sucked the life out of another lovely English word.

The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams (i.e. like post, spot, stop) and the number of dashes indicates the number of letters.  One of the anagrams will rhyme with either the preceding or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.


The chefs descended on the village where the old woman was ——–
In the hopes that they could coax her into confiding
The magic recipe for her bread, or at the very least
A ——- seat to watch her work magic with yeast.
Despite their best offers and all the dealing and conspiring
She refused to divulge the one thing that they were ——–.





Residing, ringside, desiring

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