Chugging down soulless I-95 during our spring break, my family opted for the all-American lunch stop and pulled into a McDonald's. McDonald's, as you might already know, has upgraded itself to a "McCafe" that sells iced mochas, offers free Wi-Fi, and hangs digital touch-screens in the booths. So perhaps I should haven't been surprised when I ordered the new "Bacon Clubhouse Burger" (Whose clubhouse? Does Ronald McDonald now play golf?) and read on the nattily designed box that the burger inside is on an "artisan roll."
As a chain fast-food restaurant that serves 25 million customers a day, McDonald's has got to be the antithesis of artisanal.
"Artisan"—which, of course, ought to be "artisanal" in adjectival form—has its roots in art. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines "artisan" as:
1. A skilled (esp. manual) worker; a mechanic; a craftsman
2. A person who practices or cultivates an art.
McDonald's is not the first to co-opt "artisan." Its rival Subway has "sandwich artisans"; Domino's offers ARTISAN™ pizzas, such as Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggies; Dunkin' Donuts promoted Artisan Bagels; and Wendy's sells the Artisan Egg Sandwich. No doubt the fast-food giants are trying to muscle into the higher-priced foodie realm, and sure, the ad copy is enticing. Wendy's description of its "Artisan Egg Sandwich": "fresh cracked Grade A Eggs, natural Asiago cheese, freshly cooked applewood smoked bacon or all natural sausage and Hollandaise sauce all atop a honey-wheat artisan muffin toasted to order."
What does "fresh cracked" eggs even mean? That they are cracked in the restaurant, and not months ago in a factory 1,000 miles away? Or, better yet, that the egg "atop a honey-wheat artisan muffin" is even an actual egg and not a chemical facsimile?
This copy writing taps into two modern cravings: 1) the desire for "real food," for reassurance that something quick, cheap, and mass-produced is in the same family as the egg we cracked open on the frying pan last Saturday morning—hence, the "natural," "all natural," "freshly cooked," and "fresh cracked." 2) the desire for hand-crafted, that real people, not robots, made this sustenance—hence, "toasted to order."
The gourmet, bespoke, personalized, and designed just-for-you creation is so appealing on this planet of 7 billion people. You are not just a number. You are special. Even your burger roll is artisan.
It also, I think, speaks to the illusion that we living in a friendly, close-knit community, one of artisans and artists and hand-crafted carefully designed things. A standardized transaction replicated millions of times a day is trying to be something more personal, more intimate. McDonald's may sell 75 burgers a minute, but this one is on an "artisan" roll, not a "factory" roll.
The "artisan" roll wants to matter.
In the recent post on The Witherspoon's Public Discourse, Daniel Ross Goodman examines philosopher Joseph B. Soloveitchik's ideas that "human beings possess a God-like creative capacity." By creating, we are realizing our potential as humans.
A meal that is crafted for us, created by "artisans," advertises its meaning to us. For better or worse, it encourages us to assume the illusion, for this brief moment, that we are supporting a world of craft and careful creation and human creativity.
Until we finish our meal, and get back on I-95.