Some words are more fraught with meaning than others, especially in the food world. "Gourmet," for example, or "foodie." The word "artisan" has become so commonplace (overused, misused) in the last few years as to have lost most of its meaning, which is a shame, given how important actual artisans have become to our food culture — and really always have been. This is the subject of Patric Kuh's latest book, "Finding the Flavors We Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, How Artisans Reclaimed American Food." Kuh, the longtime Los Angeles magazine restaurant critic, author of the James Beard Award-winning book "The Last Days of Haute Cuisine" and a classically trained chef, has written something that reads less like the heavily reported homage to these artisans it is than like a short-story collection. Which is high praise, really, as his goal is to tell the stories of the handful of artisans he profiles, and in doing so, contextualize what these and other artisans mean to the current food scene.
Kuh laces these vignettes through the larger story he tells of three quintessential ingredients – bourbon, baking soda and beer – as a way to give both history and context to the artisanal food movement. So we get backstories of the early American kitchen, of booze and baking, while we learn of friends who started a Jewish deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., of cheese-makers on a Michigan farm, of chef Jean-Louis Palladin's experiments in farm-to-table cooking years ago at the Watergate Hotel, of chef Nancy Silverton's early days — before Mozza, before Campanile, before La Brea Bakery — lugging around vats of sourdough starter in the back of her car and, more recently, of chef Carlos Salgado, who's making his own masa by grinding cooked heirloom corn in his Costa Mesa restaurant Taco Maria.
It's a fun way to tour and detour through an intricate narrative and to give a sense of how complicated this backstory is — and also how simple. Because in the end the story Kuh's telling is about good people doing good work to create very good food. "The word has done its job," writes Kuh near the end of his book, "allowing us to talk about the different ideas that hover around flavor, such as integrity and intent, otherwise hard to get a handle on." And then he talks about Thoreau, which is exactly where we should all end up, and a fitting end to a book about brewers and bakers and cheese-makers anyway.