Cover story -- Slow Food
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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

-- Photos courtesy of Slow Food Archives

Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini spead at the 2006 Terra Madre meeting in Turin.
A matter of taste

Slow Food movement champions 'good, clear, fair' food


Think fast food and the images come -- well, fast. Drive-through service. Speed. Golden arches. Fat and its accompanying guilt. Ingredients of dubious provenance. (Are there actually potatoes in those fries? Is it weird that the egg on your breakfast sandwich is a perfect cylinder?)

With Slow Food though, even for initates, the images are less clear. That’s because Slow Food isn’t actually a food category, or a cooking method, but a big tent over components as diverse as gastronomy, ecology and social justice.

Slow Food, the movement, began in Italy as a jocular protest to the opening of a McDonald’s near Rome’s Spanish Steps in 1986. That was terra sacra to Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, a socialist and activist from an unhurried part of northern Italy. He bemoaned the homogeneity and fast-paced lifestyle that fast food seemed to represent.

From that epiphany of indignation, Slow Food has evolved over two decades into a feel-good movement about taste, community and sustainability wrapped around a nonprofit organization that claims 80,000 members worldwide. Slow Food’s bottom-line aim is the protection of taste; its core principle is the notion that food should be “good, clean and fair.” “Good” in that it should give pleasure like a rousing three-hour Italian supper; “clean” in that its mode of production and its components should harm neither ourselves nor the environment; “fair” in that food producers should receive an adequate wage for their work.

International booths at Slow Food's 2006 Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy

Petrini is fond of quoting Wendell Berry’s formulation that “eating is an agricultural act” and of encouraging his followers to become “coproducers,” getting involved in their food before it shows up on their plates. He was horrified by a recent U.N. report citing agriculture as a main force in pollution and the depletion of natural resources.

The result when it all comes together is a curious marriage of sensuous pleasure, with emphasis on flavor, and social conscience. Slow Food is as traditional as a family or regional specialty; as complicated as development economics, farm subsidies and immigration; as progressive as offering economic assistance to endangered small food communities and disappearing ways of life.

Celebrating what we eat

It’s fitting that with a theme as ubiquitous and fundamental as food, Petrini’s Slow Food is all over the place. It includes a development arm, a publishing house, local chapters -- called convivia -- in several countries, including 130 in the United States and 350 in Italy. It founded the world’s only culinary university dedicated not to cooking but the scientific and social facets of food, called the University of Gastronomic Sciences. It also, every two years, hosts the gleeful and hectic Salone del Gusto, or Salon of Taste, a food festival that in 2006 brought more than 170,000 visitors over five days to a sprawling complex of hundreds of stands and stalls in a retired Fiat factory in Turin, Italy. (An American version of this event, Slow Food Nation, will be held for the first time in San Francisco in 2008.)

In May, Carlo Petrini was promoting his new book, Slow Food Nation, at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Advocating “virtuous globalization” based on sustainable and socially conscious eating -- what Petrini calls “eco-gastronomy” -- he laid out some paradoxes of modern food production that necessitate the existence of Slow Food. We get energy from food, he said, but we spend even more energy making it. But the food is getting worse -- less diverse, less nutritious, of lower quality. And the earth is becoming less fertile as it strains to produce industrial bumper crops. The population of farmers, meanwhile, is shrinking, and traditional, slow-paced lifestyles are disappearing. In 1950, he reported, half of Italians were farmers. In 2007, that number had shrunk to 4 percent.

Participants at the Terra Madre meeting held by Slow Food in Turin Oct. 26-30, 2006

Petrini does not object to globalization as such, and indeed is excited by the prospect of cross-cultural culinary sharing that would not have been possible in an earlier era. (2006’s Salone del Gusto, for example, hosted 200 food producers from Italy and 100 producers from all over the world -- including Polish mead brewers and Japanese sushi chefs.) But he objects to some of the priorities that seem to accompany globalization. “We can’t eat computers,” he points out. “We can’t eat information.”

Eye on the little guy

That the Slow Food founder has vaulted to international prominence, makes sense to Corby Kummer, who was Petrini’s translator at Salone del Gusto. Kummer is an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food. “Appetite,” Kummer marveled in The Atlantic in 1999, in the article that grew into the book, “can join forces with radicalism. … Doing good by eating well -- it’s an irresistible combination.”

Petrini was born in 1949 in the small town of Bra (population: 30,000), in the Piedmont region of Italy, just south of the Alps. He was president of the local Catholic association there by the time he was 17, and thereafter became involved in leftist politics. In the ’70s, he founded one of Italy’s first independent radio stations, Radio Bra Onde Rosse -- literally, Bra Red Airwaves Radio. Petrini was also on Bra’s Italian equivalent of a city council, as a representative of the now-defunct communist-leaning Partito di Unità Proletaria (Party of Proletarian Unity). Petrini, now in his late 50s, kept an eye on the little guy from early on.

To hear Petrini speak is to grasp his success as a leader of an international movement. He starts in a low rumble and crescendos and gesticulates as he warms to his favorite themes (sustainability, community, and above all, flavor) like some kind of hybrid between an Italian gastronome and a Southern Baptist preacher. His speeches are stuffed with metaphors -- metabolism as the breath of life, food as love, meal-sharing as brotherhood. At numerous points, reporters have asked him what his favorite dish is. His preferred parry is a coy: “My favorite dish is curiosity!” In truth, he’ll admit, it’s pasta with tomato sauce.

A recipe for justice

If Slow Food seems amorphous, it may be because Petrini views the organization’s “anarchic” membership structure as part of its strength. But however abstract its goals, Slow Food organizes and funds various concrete initiatives for environmental and social justice.

Salone del Gusto, 2006

In some ways, it shares goals with the fair-trade movement, which also promotes livable wages for Third-World food producers but is more preoccupied with production standards than with food festivals.

Perhaps the core initiative for Slow Food is the Presidium program funded by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. Presidium is a Latin word meaning “garrison”; the program’s aim is to protect small, traditional food communities that face extinction because of the difficulty of finding markets for their goods. The foundation offers economic assistance as well as help in standards and marketing. A 2002 study by the Bocconi University of Economics and Business in Milan, Italy, evaluated the impact of the Presidium model on 54 Italian products, and found average growth in quantities sold overall between 2000 and 2002 at more than 60 percent. Slow Food supports 200 Italian presidia and 75 worldwide, encompassing such products as Ethiopian white honey and Guatemalan Huehuetenango coffee -- which is available by request at the café down the block from Slow Food’s International headquarters in Bra.

A cheesemaker demonstrates his craft at Slow Food's Cheese 2007 event, held Sept. 21-24 in Bra, Italy.

Terra Madre, or Mother Earth, is another Slow Food community-building initiative, this one a “meeting of world food producers” that in 2006 brought together almost 9,000 people in what was once the ice-skating rink for the Turin Winter Olympics. Across a parking lot from Salone del Gusto, Terra Madre hosted talks and conferences, complete with translators, for a multilingual crowd that included nearly 5,000 food producers from 150 countries. This was not a retail function, as the next-door food festival was. This was an opportunity for farmers to get together and share ideas and experience, celebrate their unity as food producers, and grapple with some of the issues facing food production today.

One such issue was the future of seeds. “Every year in my country,” Indian physicist and economist Vandana Shiva told the closing ceremony of Terra Madre, “120,000 farmers, indebted to Monsanto and other agricultural holdings, commit suicide.” Calling patent protection of seeds “food fascism,” she presented what she called “the first official document of the Republic of Terra Madre Farmers,” a “Manifesto on the Future of Seeds.” Key among its stipulations, in Petrini’s words, was the claim that “no form of life must be patented.” Farmers worldwide have limited rights when it comes to saving and sharing seeds, and often have to pay royalties to the companies that patented the genomes of the seeds they use. Some high-yield hybrids, in fact, yield crops for only a year, after which farmers must repurchase the seeds.

But the conference was longer on celebration than lamentation. In the same closing ceremony, Petrini reflected on the achievement of bringing together delegates with so many different backgrounds, food traditions, and languages. “We must learn to do what’s impossible elsewhere, to venture where others cannot,” Petrini urged. “Marvelous things have happened over the last five days: Azerbaijan talking to Armenia, Iraq and Lebanon with Israel and Palestine.” The point was beautifully simple: West Bank settlements or no, 1967 borders or not, we’ve all got to eat.

Elitism or love?

A display at Slow Food's Cheese 2007 event

Slow Food struggles with its image as an elite organization, however. Not many, after all, relate to Petrini’s anguish over what’s happened to Stilton cheese because of European Union sanitation laws. “I cry when I see what Stilton has come to,” he told an audience at Slow Food’s second biennial Salone del Gusto in 1998, Corby Kummer wrote in The Atlantic a year later. His problem? Pasteurization kills the microbes that lent the cheese its flavor. His solution? As Kummer quotes him: “We must create an international movement to defend microbes.”

People could be forgiven for having other priorities. Further, while it is admirable to pursue just wages for farmers and food producers, people who don’t get fair wages themselves can be forgiven for trying to save money on food, even if that means eschewing farmers’ markets and personal contacts with food producers. Food, as Petrini himself points out, is not a luxury. Many just need to get their sustenance quickly so they can sleep and get to work. Many can’t be bothered about heirloom tomatoes.

The label “elitist” is a characterization that galls Kurt Michael Friese, an Iowa City chef on Slow Food’s national board of directors. “It is, however,” he admitted in a blog post on the subject in September, “easy to understand why people think it may be true, that we are just a bunch of well-heeled yuppies stuffing our craws with foie gras.”

But citing Chinese writer Lin Yu Tang’s claim that “Patriotism is the love of the foods we ate as children,” he continued: “Looked at on a macro-level, then love of humanity and love of the earth is love of the foods that make people distinct. Protecting that food, whether it is foie gras and caviar or bread and salt, is not an act of elitism but instead of human love.

“Sure we’re protecting fancy foods,” he said, “but we’re also protecting simple foods.” He points to manoomin (wild rice), one of the first United States presidia, in Minnesota. The long, aquatic grain is harvested in fall by the Anishinaabeg American Indians, who glide by the plants in canoes and beat the stalks until the grains fill their little boats.

At the very least, the notion that a fairer, more loving world is possible through the breaking of organic, sustainable bread is warm and comforting, like butternut squash with melted butter and brown sugar. The underlying plea: Let’s all just make up, have a nice meal, and above all, talk to each other.

It’s not a bad start for a movement that aspires to change our lives, our local communities and the future of global agriculture in important ways.

Kathy Gilsinan is a New York writer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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