A Grain Of Salt

November 12, 2010

One of the most overused words going around right now is ‘artisanal’. It seems like every food item that’s made with a little bit of care and attention by an actual person, rather than being spit out of the solid steel nozzle of a machine, is now described as ‘artisanal’. I can understand high-end, well-made, hand-crafted bread or sausage or cheese being described as ‘artisanal’, because, yeah, there’s an art to making things like that well, and it requires a skilled person, but when I hear about artisanal tomatoes I wonder, who the heck makes a tomato? And sometimes, to make it even worse, people lop off the last syllable, so it’s not just an artisanal tomato, it’s an artisan tomato. Anyone who made it through fifth grade grammar should know that ‘artisan’ is a noun and ‘artisanal’ is an adjective. Maybe people are afraid they’ll mispronounce the word, putting the emphasis on the penultimate syllable, but it’s an easy mistake to avoid. And if you do make that mistake the only people you have to worry about are the sort who giggle when they hear about a new moon being discovered around Uranus. Fancy tomatoes grown from special seeds that came from plants hidden away somewhere in a family farm in the middle of nowhere aren’t ‘artisanal’, they’re ‘heirloom’. This makes a little more sense, although maybe they should just be called ‘fancy tomatoes’. Heirlooms are things like dresses or clocks, or the antebellum fruitcake that my grandmother used as a doorstop, and which was once used to hit a Civil War soldier in the head and prevent him from stealing some family tomatoes, but that’s another story.

The other day I was listening to a cooking program on the radio which, by the way, is actually less frustrating than watching a cooking program on television, because for some reason I don’t salivate nearly so much while listening to a curried yam salad being described as I do while actually seeing swordfish steaks being prepared. Anyway, the host mentioned some artisanal salts. How can salt possibly be artisanal? There are dozens of ways to make bread or sausage or moons around Uranus, but as far as I know the only way to make salt is to get some sodium and chlorine to go out on a date, and at some point, usually between the appetizer and the main course, the sodium will say, "I lost an electron!" and the chlorine will say, "Are you positive?" And then you have salt. I’ve heard of table salt, rock salt, kosher salt, bath salts, pool salt, the little salt packets you get in fast food places, salt of the Earth, and even a few salty dogs, but, let’s face it, salt is salt. The only way it could get artisanal is if you add things to it, and I have heard of smoked salt, which has smoke added to it, black salt, which has, er, dirt in it, and pink salt which has, um, something pink in it. And there may be some really, really, really discriminating palates out there that can distinguish the differences, especially if they’re making an entire meal out of salt, an idea which, admittedly, makes me salivate, but makes my chest hurt at the same time. For most of us, though, I think even the most artisanal salt is going to taste like, well, salt, and anyone who thinks it tastes different has probably been hit in the head with an heirloom fruitcake.

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