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A Letter from Matinicus - Artisanal Electricity

Artisanal Electricity

By Eva Murray

Illustration by Ted Walsh

Some words just get used up; used so hard, with so much wrung out of them, that they are left but a limp rag of expression, no longer conveying meaning, just chatter, just background noise. In Issue 98 of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine, Editor Peter Spectre mentioned (in his column "In the Lee of the Boathouse") the almost comical overuse of “artisanal” in advertising. I had noticed that one myself, oh, you betcha. The word "artisanal," attached freely to Old Port provisioners, Blue Hill tourism boosters, and mail-order white-sugar delicacies from catalogs which used to sell us kitchen knives and cookie cutters, is supposed to convey an air of authenticity and an ephemeral quality of old-world superiority, as in “this loaf was kneaded by the hands of an enlightened but nearly starving French peasant, standing barefoot on a hand-hewn and thoughtfully adzed wood floor, before an oven built of carefully selected river rocks, all blessed by Saint Murgatroyd in the fifteenth century, and is crafted individually for you of wheat hand-threshed by smiling little children in hand-smocked white cotton dresses, from tiny mountain villages, who have never seen the inside of a McDonalds....” Right. I buy handmade soap from two local soap makers, because I know them (one is a neighbor and a drinking buddy; the other I see in the coffee shop and ask if he's got any more empty barrels). I buy handmade (and legitimately artisanal) goat cheese, granola, chowder, music CDs, velvet scarves, and whatever else good my neighbors might be cooking up. I make bread, pastries, lip balm, iron fireplace tools, second-rate home brew, echinacea tincture, ice cream, wool yarn, and baklava, all of it as artisanal as the day is long. If I want to make fun of the word, I guess I might be allowed. One man's “artisanal” is another man's hobby.
More to the point, I am a small-time, sort-of-commercial baker, the owner and operator of what you might call a micro-bakery, to be hopelessly cute. The bakery doesn't even have a name (that's a story for another day.) My little racket is WAY smaller than Tuva, or Borealis, or When Pigs Fly, or Big Sky. I only offer trade on Matinicus Island, and only in July and August, so I am absolutely no competition to them, or to the Pastry Garden or Cafe Miranda or Atlantic Baking Company or anybody else (so this isn't really advertising.) If anybody would have the right to claim an artisanal product, it should be me, but here's why I tend not to: I was asked once if I made “artisanal” bread. I told the smiling stranger that it was just me, as I stood there in my state-flag-of-Arizona bandanna hair cover, well dusted with King Arthur. I added that everything they saw before them on the rack was baked right here in my island kitchen, in small batches, by hand, and so I suppose... “But do you have any ARTISANAL bread?” “What?” “You know, the hard kind.” So that's it. “Artisanal” bread has taken on a specific connotation...the rugged, crusty sourdough loaf, baked in a blob (not loaf pan), possibly a little bit burned, and often containing bits of olive. “Peasant bread.” Uh huh. My bread customers seem to be more inclined toward sliceable, American-style bread, although they do like the little baguettes, and those certainly harden up (I have had it suggested to me that I obtain exactly one brick from a Paris construction site, place it inside my Vulcan stove, and advertise “French brick oven baked bread.” I have a friend who goes to Paris from time to time, but she has not yet had the spare room in her luggage for a bit of stray masonry. Perhaps next year.) You cannot make a sandwich that a man can eat with one hand using that style of “artisanal” bread. You cannot make French toast which is recognizable to a small child, and those olives will get you in trouble. You cannot keep it around for several days and use it later, except perhaps as salad croutons or cribbing or blocking or something helpful to prop the window open. Artisanal bread is bread you can pound nails with. I don't really believe that, of course, and actually I like that sort of hard-crust bread myself, now that my braces are off. It's the stereotype I don't like, and the pretentiousness of the word as a piece of overcooked ad-jargon. Silly. Peter remarked that the word (which does not appear in my Webster's, and which my spell-checker is having fits over right now) seems to mean “made with care by hand by a small number of people." He suggests to his readership an “artisanal magazine.” I immediately thought something else: We on Matinicus must have artisanal electricity. We certainly have our kilowatts cranked out with care, in a small generating station, tended by a small (very small) number of people. There’s no hand-adzed floor, though, but yes on the conscientious, humble tradesmen who teach their specialized skills to their children, use old tools that were handed down, and no computers. Isn't that charming? Oh, and it costs more than the usual kind, too, being made in a small town and everything. (Someone is bout to throw a shoe at me if I keep going on like this….) I looked back at the magazine where we'd seen the mention of “artisanal.” Paul had affixed a pink sticky-note to it that asked: “What about artisanal art?”