Reader Jeremy P. recently helped me understand a bit more about how high-end saxophones are made. He was responding to my recent flowchart test that used musical instruments to determine when an instrument maker can apply the artisanal designation. Jeremy’s point was that automation has improved saxophones: many high end makers use computer-aided technology to determine precision tuning. Can we begrudge them an automated process if it results in a superior product? Certainly not. Again, as long as automation is not facilitating mass production, we’re still on the chart.
Now, let’s apply Jeremy’s question to something more commonplace: how much automation can we allow and still call an item homemade? We throw around the word homemade far more often than we use artisanal, so this discussion should be even more juicy.
The question, again, is one of definition. What does homemade mean? For starters, it must be made at home. This ought to be obvious, but it’s not. For example, why do restaurants routinely call their food homemade? That can’t possibly be true. (More fascinating is that diners don’t object–but I digress.)
Second, a homemade thing must be made by hand. We can say this because homemade can be used as a synonym for hand-crafted. People who use the term hand-crafted to describe their item may not like the comparison because homemade bespeaks a sense of homeyness or crude, even slip-shod construction; but, it can also mean made from scratch and made by oneself and this gives the word a sense of ingenuity and self-sufficiency.
The made-by-hand requirement, however, is also where the trouble begins. Especially today, automation is almost impossible to overcome. To show just how difficult it is to avoid, consider baking. Most people who bake do not mill their own flour. They use store-bought flour that was mass produced using automation. Nor do they make their own butter or harvest their own sugar. But few people would object to calling a cake made in a kitchen homemade. In fact, many people would be pleased to call a cake from a mix homemade.
We just don’t live in a world that will allow us to mill our own flour or churn or own butter. With a few exceptions, we just don’t have the time or the resources. We did once, and this indicates to me that the definition has shifted. Maybe not when a person bought the first bag of milled flour. That moment was probably a celebration of survival. But that first cake mix must have been a threat. Is a box cake a real cake?
Once, this was a big deal. Today, we think nothing of it. Homemade is a shifting target, and that’s why restaurants can claim it for their own. Just like artisanal, we no long know what it means.
I don’t know about you, but I find this slippage exasperating. Too much arbitrary shift.