Are Artisanal Foods Better?

Are artisanal foods better? To label a food artisan or artisanal, makes it sound handcrafted and traditional invoking the idea of homemade. And because there is no labeling standard for artisanal in the US, marketers are free to use the term liberally.

When it comes to commercially produced, packaged, and distributed foods, the term is often meaningless. It is possible that a particular product is produced in smaller batches or grown from heirloom seeds, but it is unlikely that it is truly grown or made by hand in the way it would have been before 1950.

A recent, quick search on a grocery website showed hundreds of foods tagged with the keyword artisan whether or not that word appeared on the label. Within these foods, I found everything from lettuce to plantain chips to mass-produced tortilla chips. Some of the foods were clearly not artisanal. Free-for-all labeling makes it difficult to determine which foods are artisanal and which are not.

If you’re concerned about what you’re ingesting, labeling standards in the US often leave much to be desired. So here’s my take. Artisanal food produced by large food conglomerates and distributed through large chain stores can only be expected to meet the quality standard you have for processed food.

These products may taste good and have a relatively pleasing texture, but that may be because of additives. It is not necessarily a reflection of higher quality ingredients, smaller batches, or more human attention. I would not consider these foods better than any other processed food. That doesn’t mean I automatically avoid foods labeled artisanal. It just means I don’t put a lot of stock in the idea that they are any better quality than any other packaged food.

When it comes to fresh foods, I might choose to purchase an interesting artisanal lettuce, but I would not believe that it equals the freshness and food value of the lettuce I grow in my back yard. And I would not pay extra for it just because of the label.

With all of that said, is it possible that you will find artisanal cheese at your famers market that is better than commercially produced cheese…yes! Is it possible that your local bakery hand kneads bread…yes! Is it possible that a local restaurant makes the creamiest yogurt you’ve ever tasted in small batches on top of their freezer…yes! Are these artisanal foods better? Yes! They’re fresher, more likely to have less additives, and they have been tended by someone who can adjust ingredients and techniques as needed to produce a superior product.

When I reflect, I realize that I prepare food much like an artisan. I prefer to do many things by hand or with a minimum of automated tools. It’s not that I like extra work. I just don’t want lots of gadgets cluttering my workspace. And I feel like I would spend more time cleaning automated tools than I do making something by hand.

I also like working with my hands in the kitchen much like I enjoy putting my hands in the dirt in the garden. There’s something satisfying and fulfilling about the sensory experience of hand preparation. The sound of a carrot yielding to a knife is much more pleasing than the sound of a food processor. I love overpowering a butternut squash or watermelon. And when I squeeze an orange with my hands, the yummy smell of the juice permeates my skin.

Is my food artisanal? I don’t really think of it that way. And yet when I get it right, I appreciate the same things about my dishes that I appreciate about any other artisan’s. And I value taking a bite that for a moment is the best thing I’ve ever tasted! Isn’t that what we all hope to savor – those bites that are the best?

In spite of the difficulty in identifying foods that fit the definition, truly artisanal foods probably are better.

Part Art Part Science

One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s part art and part science with just enough math thrown in. But you don’t even have to know that to be a good cook. You may visualize taste and instinctively know what to throw together. You may have apprenticed with your grandmother, mother or dad and have a visual reference for the thickness of pancake batter. There are so many paths that lead to great cooking!

If you don’t have much experience and cooking doesn’t come naturally to you, the book SaltFatAcidHeat by Samin Nosrat can bring you knowledge and confidence. Even if you’re an experienced cook and are good in the kitchen, you may improve your game using this tool. Besides that, the book has pleasing illustrations and quirky fold-out pages. It also includes pages on which to write notes. I always appreciate those.

While it’s not a traditional cookbook, this book does contain recipes – delicious ones. The Vietnamese Cucumber Salad (page 226) is so good, I could eat it every day for a week!

And speaking of salads, there’s a whole section in SaltFatAcidHeat on dressings. I’m fond of throwing together dressing rather than buying bottles of it from the store. I feel the same way about barbecue sauce. There’s less waste that way, and I’m rarely without the raw ingredients to make a dressing or sauce on a whim.

You may think there’s no way you’ll ever prepare your own salad dressing, but reading this book will make you a more likely explorer in that you will come away understanding the basic elements of good cooking. It shares the kind of knowledge that can bring more confidence and freedom in the kitchen. You’ll have read how to cook onions. And not just soften them until they’re clear, but how to brown or caramelize them. You’ll know how to fix a broken mayonnaise and create a dough that’s chewy and rich or one that’s flaky or tender.

I’m going to delve more deeply into the dough section while I adapt some recipes to make them dairy-free. Swapping out another liquid for milk changes a dough more than you might expect. And the fact that my dairy-free doughs are also gluten-free adds another layer of complexity. Understanding the science of dough helps me design artful ways around the obstacles presented by combining nontraditional ingredients.

If you want to delve further into the science of cooking, there’s literally a book entitled The Science of Cooking: Every Question Answered to Perfect Your Cooking. This book is filled with facts and has a very different feel than SaltFatAcidHeat. But both are great learning tools.

There are other books that approach cooking from a scientific perspective: Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Chemistry of Cooking and The Science of Spice: Understand Flavor Connections and Revolutionize Your Cooking are two of those. If one of these doesn’t suit you, just look around a bit and you’re sure to find a guide that will.

Whether you enjoy the art or science of cooking, there’s always more to learn and more delicious dishes to make. That makes cooking the perfect job for me.

If only there were someone else to do the dishes!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Openness and Thriving

Does your level of openness affect your ability to thrive? Here’s a little more food for thought as we ease into the rhythm of this new year.

I love tests! Back when filled a website with tests, I took a LOT of them! Personality tests are some of my favorites.

Like me, you may have run across personality tests that identify the big five traits – openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Dating sites sometimes use a measure of these characteristics to generate matches.

Some of us are very agreeable. Some of us are only slightly agreeable. (When I’m hungry, I can confidently say, I’m 100% DISagreeable, but that’s another conversation.) Where each of us fall on the spectrum of these traits appears to be 40-60% inherited, and 40-60% environmental.

There is no perfect combination of traits and possessing almost none vs. an extreme amount of any of them is neither good nor bad. You can easily get through life without knowing where you fall in any category.

But what if knowing could make it easier to thrive?

Let’s take openness for example, also referred to as openness to experience. Those who are more open to experience are more likely to be imaginative and spontaneous. They’ve also been characterized as curious and unconventional. They may feel practical, routine things are boring or unnecessary.

The idea of climbing Mt. Everest or being a space tourist could appeal to someone who’s open. Or they might marry someone they just met on a cruise. But it’s not as if you can pick someone out of a lineup and immediately know how open they are.

If someone has a high openness score coupled with a high conscientiousness score, the experiences they embrace will most likely be tempered by discipline. I would think that commercial pilots would have high scores in both openness and conscientiousness. They, in fact, do score highly in conscientiousness, but I haven’t found a correlation with openness yet.

That particular combination of traits would seem to be well-suited to careers in research as well. Someone who embodies curiosity and imagination as well as a careful, disciplined approach would be a natural fit for acquiring knowledge through adherence to the scientific method.

Of course, we all sail through life when our everyday circumstances fall in line with areas in which we are comfortable. It’s when we’re faced with something that feels foreign, unnatural, or hard that we struggle. It stands to reason that minimizing the clash between personality mismatches and life circumstances will increase our chances of thriving.

Since we can’t always control our circumstances, it’s important to understand that we can shift our basic personality to reduce our discomfort. The 40-60% of us that has been determined by environment, is more malleable than we sometimes recognize.

This malleability can have both good and bad results. In abusive relationships, the results will most likely be to the detriment of both the perpetrator and the victim. No one comes out of an abusive relationship unchanged.

I’m not suggesting that it’s possible to be your best when you’re embroiled in a toxic, or abusive relationship or that you should alter your personality in order to stay in one. On the other hand, shifting your traits for a short period of time may save your life.

Yes, the cost is huge and long-lasting. But if you must shift while you put an exit plan in place, the cost may be worth it. While this idea can create a feeling of shame, just remember that saving your life or the lives of your children is never anything to be ashamed of.

But malleability is not always detrimental. When we say we want to be better people, aren’t we saying we want to change something about our personality that isn’t measuring up? So many of us say we want to be better and then fail miserably at becoming better again and again and again. Perhaps that’s because we fail to get to know ourselves well before we begin the process.

That’s where openness circles back into the conversation. The more we are open to a new idea of ourselves, the more likely we are to be able to change toward that idea.

Being more open will also improve our comfort level when adapting to new jobs, new babies, new diets, new exercise routines, and new health requirements. Being curious can pull us collectively forward. Think of all the scientific discoveries that are the answer to someone’s curiosity. And being open to the ideas and interests of others will go a long way toward winning us friends.

I often think of openness as receptiveness. Am I receptive to learning, changing, feeling, and stretching my comfort level? Am I receptive to compliments, accolades, and praise? Am I receptive to novelty, the unexpected, and the beauty around me? Am I receptive to friendship, companionship, affection, and love?

Does my idea of myself allow me to be open to the idea that I deserve all of the above? If not, would my life be better if I were?

The answer to that question will answer the question that started this whole thought journey – does your level of openness affect your ability to thrive?

For me, the answer is yes.

There are Many Ways to Serve

On this national day of service in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s worth noting that there are many ways to serve. The pandemic may leave you feeling at loose ends without the familiar avenues in which to engage with the community. Like all change, a lack of the usual avenues brings an opportunity to shift, explore, expand, and learn.

When I’m not sure how best to contribute to improving my community, I look backward at the things that have influenced, bolstered, and supported me. This list will always include books. Books gave me a view of the world outside of my family and our surrounding small town.

This opening to the larger world help me gain perspective on my experience using knowledge that was out of the reach of my environment. I have relied on my ability to use resources beyond myself to gain insight, maintain balance, agglomerate encouragement, and amass courage. Books allowed me to envision possibilities I never would have otherwise imagined.

Words and stories create narratives that shape the future. Writing can be of service.

When I look back at my decision to start my first business, I think of the office my grandfather set up when I was four or five in an outbuilding behind my great grandfather’s house. By that time, the house itself was rented to strangers, but the outbuildings and farmland were his to tend.

Directly behind the house was a long series of rooms each opening to the yard, unconnected to the one on either side except for a common wall. I don’t know the original purpose of these rooms, but my grandfather designated one as our office. In it, he put a wooden table, chair, typewriter, and adding machine. With adhesive letters, he added our names to the door – his, and mine.

There I am with the state’s first lady!

My dad also owned a small business. While much of what I know about running an enterprise comes from working for him, the vision of my name on that office door is what I think of when someone asks my how I had the courage to go out on my own. My grandfather took me with him to vote and let me pull the levers. He took me with him to Lions Club and to meet the governor. He sent me door-to-door to campaign for him without adult supervision when I was eight and he ran for state representative.

Repeated acts treating me as though I belonged in the room or on the campaign trail just like any trusted adult imparted the ability to trust myself and believe I am a valuable team member even in rooms that are filled with men. There were many forces that attempted to undermine me during those years, but my grandfather consistently set me up for success.

I can think of no greater service to a child’s success, or to an adult’s for that matter, than repeatedly and consistently treating them as a competent and important contributor.

My grandmother modeled service in other ways. On Sunday afternoons, she visited older relatives in long-term care. At least once a month, I was expected to go with her. I remember the smell of urine hanging in the air as I walked down the halls. When I took over the care of my mother’s cousin in 2016, it was with that model in my head.

My family lived on a farm. About halfway to our dirt road was another road of farms. On that road was a large, once impressive house that was now slowly rotting, sagging, and falling apart. Mr. Green, the sole occupant, had no means of support and no car. About once a month, my grandmother and I would go to the grocery store, buy groceries, and deliver them to Mr. Green.

What my grandmother provided was a lifeline Mr. Green could count on. The security of knowing she would show up was as important as the staples in the grocery bag.

Small, consistent acts of kindness may not make headlines, but they make a difference.

When I look to improve my community, I also rely on my strengths and experience to create opportunities.

Organizations often need some particular expertise. I have edited newsletters, designed invitations, and worked the door of events. I created recipes and did a cooking class for disabled students soon to be heading for college. I’ve also connected a lot of people with new sources or new jobs.

Many nonprofits need someone to enter and maintain data. If you’re good at details and software, this could be an avenue for contribution even while staying home.

Never underestimate the power of kindness. Fresh baked cookies left on a neighbor’s porch, cards sent for no particular reason, or a regular Saturday morning phone call can all have more impact than you may imagine.

Sometimes I feel motivated if I am serving a goal more specific than improving my community. Perhaps I will act in service of peace, or gratitude, or inspiration. Perhaps I will act in service of improved health.

Improving one thing about which you’re passionate will contribute to bettering the community as a whole. And if each of us follows different passions, growth will expand in many directions. In this, with consistent, continued practice, we’ll learn that the whole becomes better when we all contribute.

Choose one thing that will better someone else’s life. Practice that thing consistently. This is the definition of service. There are many ways to serve.

Can Lasting Improvement Stem From Commitment to a Process?