Artisanal Sno-Cones

This morning on the Ricochet podcast we were talking about the signifiers that bind the members of the media together – the emblems of class and tribe one can reasonably expect from a middle-aged J-school grad. For some reason I thought of a New York Times piece on summer treats. Like popsicles, and how they can be ruined with a light glaze of faddish pretension.

Popsicles were once a a simple thing, with simple rules: the bag stuck to the treat, but yielded when you pulled. The popsicle could be cleaved on a metal porch railing, a countertop, or cracked with brute force. Sometimes it broke wrong; that was life. Banana was rare and highly prized. The last few bites always tasted of wood. That was enough, no? No: they’ll be ruined right after Sno-Cones. From the New York Times:

“American food lovers, who seem to be re-examining every humble snack — beef jerky, pretzels, soft-serve — for artisanal potential, are now turning their attention to shaved ice. They are abandoning the Day-Glo aesthetic and fake flavors that they grew up with in favor of the true colors of summer fruit.”

 As usual, “they” probably means the author’s friends, quickly followed by people who read the Times’ Style section as a guide to life instead of a sociological equivalent of an Economist story on Uruguay politics.

The word “artisanal” is the grandson of “gourmet,” which was an all-purpose prefix in the 80s: jelly beans and dog biscuits and hand-glazed Cracker Jack nodules. It had a cheap gilded Trump-like connotation – instant class! Just add 15% to the cost. Artisanal isn’t enough, though. Oh, it’s good – but things must also be Sustainable. A menu my daughter brought home from a San Francisco bakery a menu that reassured patrons their store was built with sustainable lumber, lest anyone worry that their cake was being eaten under timbers harvested by people who weren’t thinking seven generations into the future.

Unsustainable dessert stores will only hasten the death of the planet, and future cakeless generations will curse us bitterly. But if a store promises it sustains, you can be guaranteed that some offerings will be artisanal. It’s meant to suggest that skilled popsicle craftsman bring years of experience to their job, working in humble sun-splashed studios with David-Byrne-approved 3rd world music on the stereo, gently shaving the skin of a blueberry to extract the essence, hand-planing the stick (sustainably grown) with recycled sandpaper, then adding a drop of peasant-harvested, shade-grown honey, as they were taught when they studied Organic Popsicles from a wise old lady, preferably in a barrio.

Many readers, over the years, have come to weary of the artisanal snow-cone story, and feel as though they’re somehow a lesser person, a gustatory philistine, for not caring about artisanal snow-cone stories. They’re not of the tribe. But if anyone gives you trouble for having a mass-produced popsicle, nod sagely, and tell them it’s “Quiescently frozen.” Might keep them off your back, at least until they look it up.

  1. John Boyer

    There definitely is something to be said for more expensive, well made food. But to slap a trendy name on food and assume it elevates your moral/intellectual status and gives a bump of class is absurd.

    Clever as always, James.

  2. The Mugwump

    Well, silly me for thinking all these years that “sustainable” meant a business was making a profit.

  3. Ottoman Umpire

    Gourmet magazine, under Gail Zweigenthal, seemed less pretentious than its name suggested. Then in came Ruth Reichl, and it became a magazine for, and kind of about, foodies: exotic ingredients; soft-focus, weirdly tinted photography; and a predictable fetish toward the politics of food (sustainable, locally produced, free range, fair trade, etc.)

    Fast forward 10 years, and Condé Nast pulls the plug on it.

    The market wins again.

  4. Conor Friedersdorf
    C

    Mr. Lileks! I’m so glad to see you writing here. And I can’t resist noting that anyone who hasn’t already done so should read your classic screed against certain critics of The Olive Garden.

  5. G.A. Dean

    I wonder how many years the budding apprentice must study under the “artisan” before being certified as a maker of Sno-Cones. Very demanding craft, I imagine.

    This reminds me of my time in the food biz (the ’80′s) when we explored the many strange and wonderful things that could be shoehorned into the category “all-natural.” I would guess that if an “artisan” machined the processor the product is made on, the marketing dept. is prepared to label it “artisanal.”

  6. Katrina Gulliver

    Mr Lileks – it was good to hear you on Ricochet the other day! I have missed the Diner.

    Artisanal also means “rare” – once it starts being sold at every supermarket, it’s no longer “artisanal”… and of course the bizarre tension between the earnest locavores and those who want to buy things grown by romanticised organic peasants in some more “authentic” part of the world (and then flown half way round the planet in a jet, of course). Oh, the dilemma…

  7. Anon NYC

    G.A.,it’s even easier than that. KitchenAid makes a mixer model named Artisan. Use the mixer to blend artificial colors and corn syrup for the topping and you’re all set…Artisan Sno-Cones.

  8. Duane Oyen

    As one who, years ago, listened to the original Diner show live on KSTP on Saturdays, I may be Ricochet’s longest serving Lileks addict. And, of course, Falling Up the Stairs (tragically no longer in print) was the first true literary skewering of the AIL Nazis (acronym information available by reading the book).

    But they will have to pry my artificially, over-sweet grape or cherry Snow Cone from my (of course- it’s ice, people) cold, dead fingers.

  9. Mel Foil

    The other end of the gastronomical arts:

    From: Haiti: Mud cakes become staple diet as cost of food soars beyond a family’s reach, UK Guardian, by Rory Carroll, July 29, 2008

    At first sight the business resembles a thriving pottery. In a dusty courtyard women mould clay and water into hundreds of little platters and lay them out to harden under the Caribbean sun. The craftsmanship is rough and the finished products are uneven. But customers do not object. This is Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most notorious slum, and these platters are not to hold food. They are food. Brittle and gritty – and as revolting as they sound – these are “mud cakes”. For years they have been consumed by impoverished pregnant women seeking calcium, a risky and medically unproven supplement, but now the cakes have become a staple for entire families. [...] “It stops the hunger,” said Marie-Carmelle Baptiste, 35, a producer, eyeing up her stock laid out in rows. She did not embroider their appeal. “You eat them when you have to.”

  10. Fredösphere

    James Lileks, you are the apotheosis of the noösphere.

    I think the term artisanal may be subject to a rule of thumb similar to that of natural, i.e., if it says it’s natural, it isn’t. I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever eaten any food that was labeled artisanal that wasn’t crap.

  11. Rob Long
    C
    Conor Friedersdorf: Mr. Lileks! I’m so glad to see you writing here. And I can’t resist noting that anyone who hasn’t already done so should read your classic screed against certain critics of The Olive Garden. · Jul 1 at 2:08pm

    I’m with you, Conor. I re-read that piece all the time. And each time it gives me goosebumps.

  12. James Poulos
    C
    Rob Long

    Conor Friedersdorf: Mr. Lileks! [...] I can’t resist noting that anyone who hasn’t already done so should read your classic screed against certain critics of The Olive Garden.

    I’m with you, Conor. I re-read that piece all the time. And each time it gives me goosebumps.

    I’m struck by how central the metaphor of food really turns out to be to certain political utopias. Food is the great analogy to the dream society — like a cosmic food court or a lovingly tossed salad. (Melting pot: out like fondue.) Eating is the lowest of human appetites that can be executed with such high culture. The promise of food is the promise of a super-civilized indulgence in a kind of physical pleasure that transcends politics and history — totally of the moment, totally noncompetitive, totally noncontradictory, every cuisine radically different but every plate equally delicious. And sure enough, I like my artisanal cheese and infinite breadsticks.

    Fredösphere: I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever eaten any food that was labeled artisanal that wasn’t crap.

    Anything that has to be labeled artisanal, of course…isn’t.

  13. The Mugwump

    In a sudden dyslexic epiphany I noticed that the last four letters of artisanal spell “anal.” Rather sums it up for me.

  14. Fredösphere
    James Lileks: Thanks, folks, for the kind welcome – much obliged, and I’m happy to be part of the Ricochet conversation. (The “hip” thing to say would be “happy to be on Team Ricochet,” but that “Team” thing got old faster than “you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay.)

    Not to threadjack, but the Diner still exists in podcast form – new episode Friday, in fact. · Jul 1 at 6:57pm

    Ah, James, you lost me on the Diner podcast at the end of 2008. I looked for the Diner several times, but didn’t find it on iTunes. It think I had to resubscribe to the Diner at the previous year’s end as well. I hate to be a whiner (that’s an artisanal whiner, thank you very much) but you shouldn’t require your fans to keep chasing your podcasts down like that. You’ll lose ‘em.

    (Or maybe it’s just me, somehow screwing up.)

  15. James Lileks
    C

    Thanks, folks, for the kind welcome – much obliged, and I’m happy to be part of the Ricochet conversation. (The “hip” thing to say would be “happy to be on Team Ricochet,” but that “Team” thing got old faster than “you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay.)

    Not to threadjack, but the Diner still exists in podcast form – new episode Friday, in fact.

  16. Rob Long
    C

    Threadjack away, James. In fact, please post the link the moment the Diner is up. I, too, miss the Diner.

    And full disclosure: I am a total foodie. I went to cooking school. In France. I love all of that artisanal stuff — am a total sucker for a cage-free egg omelet.

    And yet: Olive Garden breadsticks? Delicious. A Sno-cone with syrupy purple syrup goodness? Fantastic. I just love food — all of it, all kinds, as long as it’s got some integrity to it (cf. my disquisition on the Frito Chili Pie, here.) If it came topped with melted cheese with crispy edges, I’d eat my iPad. I eat everything.

    Except goat cheese. Which is appalling stuff.

    (Although I do eat goat. Go figure.)

  17. Andrea Ryan
    Rob Long: — am a total sucker for a cage-free egg omelet.

    Although I do eat goat. · Jul 1 at 7:48pm

    How does a cage-free egg taste different than any other egg when cooked with a bunch of other “stuff” and, probably, butter, too?

    Where do you eat goat? What does it taste like?

  18. Anon NYC
    Fredösphere: I think the term artisanal may be subject to a rule of thumb similar to that of natural, i.e., if it says it’s natural, it isn’t. I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever eaten any food that was labeled artisanal that wasn’t crap. · Jul 1 at 4:14pm

    Exactly, “Artisinal” evokes somebody laboring on their farm in Vermont and trundling off to market every day. Whereas the reality is like La Brea Artisanal Breads. Mixed and par-baked (in California, I think) then shipped to Costcos and supermarkets all over the country where they finish baking for that fresh bread experience. Owned by a division of Cusine de France, which is an Irish business unit of a Swiss food conglomerate.

    Le Brea’s food is great, though. When I go off the whole wheat wagon, it’s for La Brea Rosemary Olive bread. They serve that stuff in heaven.

  19. Gwen Novak

    I think it tastes slightly better but I’ve never done a blind taste test. The yolks are more golden at least for the ones I buy.

  20. Rob Long
    C

    Agreed, Gwen. There’s something eggier about a free-range egg. Just as there’s something chickeny-er about a free-range chicken. They taste the way they used to taste, if you can remember. I hate the trappings and snobbery of the foodie movement, but I can’t deny the benefits of some of what it stands for. And in a way, I think it’s genuinely conservative — look, we live in a rich society (rich, thanks to entrepreneurial capitalism) and we can afford to eat well. We can afford to raise beef, chicken, and pork in a healthy and (right up until the last moment) humane way. They can’t, and don’t, in China.