My Next Project–Revealed!


With even McDonald’s offering artisanal fare—an “Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich”—it occurred to me that I really ought to do something artisanal myself before the trend toward artisanal and craft products wore itself out, so I decided that for my next project I would produce a wholly artisanal book.

First, though, I had to look up the term artisanal. I had only a limited grasp of its meaning, which was further confounded by McDonald’s official description of its sandwich as being “100% grilled chicken breast filet seasoned to perfection with ingredients like salt, garlic and parsley – seared in our kitchens, no preservatives added. Crisp leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, and a vinaigrette dressing. All atop our delectable artisan roll.” I did not understand which aspect made it an artisanal chicken sandwich. Was the chicken artisanally grown, as in fed, slaughtered, and plucked by hand, or was it the salt, garlic and parsley that made it artisanal, and was there even such a thing as artisanal salt, because making salt by hand seemed like something that would be tedious and costly and likely to give rise to abusive labor practices in Malaysia. Was the artisanal part the searing, or merely the “delectable artisan roll,” and was it reasonable to imagine that a company the size of McDonald’s would make this “artisan roll” by hand without any mechanized assistance?

The word artisanal itself seemed more or less self-explanatory, a combination of the words artist and anal, suggesting tight-sphinctered craftspeople in Brooklyn, with small hands, hard at work with small utensils, making things like artisanal cheeses and breads and counterfeit car parts. But to confirm my understanding I consulted the online Oxford Dictionary, which provided these definitions: “Relating to or characteristic of an artisan: artisanal skills,” and “(Of a product, especially food or drink) made in a traditional or non-mechanical way: cheeses.”

The term traditional seemed to offer a lot of leeway. McDonald’s has traditionally mass produced its sandwiches and their components, so in that context mass-producing the chicken sandwich would not in itself be anti-artisanal.

McDonald's artisan

For further insight, I consulted Siri, in my iPhone 5S, and asked her to define artisanal. We had communications issues. First she replied, “Let me think about that. Okay, I found this on the web for ‘what does artistical mean.’”

I corrected her and tried again.

She said, “Here’s what I found on the web for ‘what does artistic Noel mean.’”

“No, Siri. Artisanal.” I spelled it. Siri does not like it when you spell things for her. “Ok,” she said, “I found this on the web for ‘what does our Tisza Nalle mean a RT I S a and AL.”

But I decided I knew enough to proceed with my plan to produce an artisanal book. First I had to manufacture the paper—that much seemed obvious. I bought a kitchen grinder with a manual crank and put pieces of a cardboard box in its hopper, along with some artisanal water. I turned the crank and watched the grinder extrude a brown slurry of pulp, whose appearance would not be unfamiliar to any dog owner whose dog had just eaten a whole stick of butter. I rolled this slurry out on a pizza stone, and put the stone in my oven at 500 degrees for 20 minutes, figuring that the artisanal manufacture of paper probably had a lot in common with baking a pizza crust.

When the flames were out and I was sure my smoke alarm would not start up again, I went to the Staples store at Lexington and E. 86th St., and asked the clerk there if she could direct me to the artisanal paper. She called her manager, who said, “Sir, if you continue to use language like that in this store, I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

I bought a ream of paper made from 100 percent recycled stock, figuring this was close enough, and brought it home in an artisanally produced hemp bag that I had picked up years earlier at a concert at the Filmore East, which I realize dates me, but there it is.

Next I realized I would need some artisanal ink. I went to my nearby Gourmet Garage and bought several pints of blueberries, and brought these home and used my meat grinder to crush them. A stream of deep blue liquid slipped from the mouth of the grinder into a strainer and from there into the bowl underneath. I saved the crushed remains for an artisanal blueberry pie that I made later that night and that was wonderful, with a dab of artisanal vanilla gelato made by my friend Vincent Tonno, known to friends as Vinnie the Tuna, though because of his ankle monitor I had to go to his building in Bushwick to pick it up.

I had a fountain pen which had been given me once as a gift for teaching a writing course. I filled the pen, and began to write. I got as far as “Th—,” when the point clogged. No matter what I tried—hot water, olive oil, picking at it with a needle heated over a match—I could not get it unclogged. I looked through my extensive pen collection for whatever ballpoint might come closest to being artisanal, and chose a Bic Cristal, and yes the spelling is correct. It had a clear plastic shaft and a chewable black top. I decided it was artisanal because it dated back to when I was a kid, and therefore fulfilled the “traditional” aspect of artisanal production, though I suppose by the same standard one could resume making steel in Pittsburgh the way they did in the 1960s when you could get emphysema just by stopping to pee at a rest area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The writing came easily. I decided to write about artisans, specifically the Roycrofters in Aurora, NY, and soon I had a stack of artisanal prose that I considered quite good, until my wife read it and said “artisanal schmartisanal, this stinks, maybe you should think about making artisanal cheeses instead. And if you do, clean your fingernails.”

She was right about the prose. I was so focused on the artisanal part that I forgot that people who engage in artisanal reading like a good fast plot and lots of artisanal sex, and my book had none of that, so I went back to the drawing board, which by the way was made from hand-hewn planks salvaged from a barn on the North Fork of Long Island.

Within six months I had accumulated about 200 pages of artisanal prose that even my wife liked. Now came the difficult part: Carving my own type font, so that I could set the type for each page by hand. I bought a dozen wood blocks and some cutting tools and for the heck of it a green visor, and set down to work. Soon enough, meaning after five years of labor, I had a collection of type, and began hand-setting my book and running off pages to proof read. Some letters were illegible, but then this was also the case with the calligraphy in certain medieval manuscripts and some of those were so pretty they ended up in museums, so I printed enough pages to make five books.

Morocco binding

Morocco binding

Now came the binding process. Here I realized I would have to make certain compromises. I knew I wanted to bind the books in leather, maybe a nice Morocco binding made from goat skin, but how far really was I willing to go? I knew of a farm in Sullivan County that had goats and considered briefly going up there in the dead of night and kidnapping one, bringing it back to my apartment in Manhattan, and skinning it and tanning its hide, but I realized that my co-op board might have objections, and in any case goats were only allowed in the service elevator, which had to be operated by one of the building staff and ceased operation at 4:30 each afternoon, no exceptions.

Besides, I was tired. I understood now why McDonald’s just sort of slapped the name artisanal on its chicken sandwich, because if McDonald’s had really gone the artisanal route the sandwich would cost $1,395.58, and this price would not include fries or even one of those giant sodas that you should never drink before a long rush-hour drive because you will have a problem.

I decided to take my artisanal pages to a copy center and have them bound with one of those spiral things and a clear plastic cover, and call it a day. An artisanal day. In the end I was very proud. I bought some artisanal gin and made myself a craft cocktail, and in short order was asleep and dreaming of power plants filled with people on tread mills creating artisanal electricity, until I was abruptly awakened by a dream in which a man pulled an artisanal handgun, took my wallet and my shoes, and as he ran off shouted over his shoulder, “stay down, motherfucker, or I’ll blow your artisanal head off.”


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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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