Slow Food vs. Fast Life
Clay Hubbs talks with Italian Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini about the links between ethics and pleasure, ecology and gastronomy
All photos from Italy courtesy of the Slow Food archive
A major goal of Transitions Abroad is to facilitate responsible tourism and cross-cultural exchange. And since nothing brings people together like sitting down to a meal with a welcoming host in another country, we have been telling our readers about the Slow Food movement for many years.
Under the heading of “Travel to Eat,” my wife Joanna and I have written several articles on traditional foods in various regions of Italy. Our principal authorities and guides were the remarkably helpful staff at the world headquarters of Slow Food at Bra in the Langhe, the center of a region that produces some of Italy’s tastiest wines and dishes and is the home of Slow Food’s founder and president, Carlo Petrini.
Last summer, prompted by an invitation to attend a symposium on “Cheese—Milk in All Its Shapes and Forms,” we returned to Bra hoping this time to speak with Petrini about Slow Food’s goals and achievements. He was out, so while we awaited his return, his assistant, Alessandra Abbona, and Slow Food’s press secretary, Francesca Rosso, filled us in on some of Slow Food’s activities since our last visit.
What began as a spontaneous meeting of friends to enjoy the wine and cooking of the Piedmont has grown into a worldwide association with 80 thousand members who come together in “convivia” at the local level; their activities range from visits to apple orchards in Tasmania to day-long wine and food tours in France. Members expand their knowledge and refine their awareness of flavors by working with schools and local producers and organizing symposia with authors and experts. Of the thousand or so convivia worldwide, 150 are in the U.S. Slow Food USA and the French Culinary Institute recently teamed up to bring the “Urban Harvest” to New York City. From apple tastings to a cheese cave, where attendees sampled raw-milk cheeses from the Northeast, the event provided New Yorkers with a taste of the countryside and cheeses produced in the old-fashioned way, by hand.
Apart from the explosive growth in individual membership, we learned from Alessandra and Francesca that the big news at Slow Food is the way worldwide food communities—producers, artisans, distributors, and retailers who share the same passion and philosophy—are coming together to share knowledge and experience, contacts and advice.
Terra Madre, a meeting of world food communities, brings thousands of farmers and food producers from thousands of food communities in more than 130 nations to participate in workshops globally on sustainability, biodiversity, community, and local development. They share solutions to common challenges of producing honest food in a sustainable manner.
In his closing address to the gathering in 2004 in Turin,His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales said, “The fact that no fewer than 5,000 food producers have gathered here today, under the ‘Slow Food’ banner, is a small but significant challenge to the massed forces of globalization, the industrialization of agriculture and the homogenization of food—which seem somehow to have invaded almost all areas of life today.”
An annual Slow Food membership in the U.S. (the second largest national Slow Food organization in the world, following Italy) entitles you to: a membership card, The Slow Food Companion, the tri-annual international Slow magazine (available in English, Italian, German, French, Spanish, and Japanese), The Snail quarterly national newsletter, “The Food Chain” monthly e-newsletter, discounts on all Slow Food publications and merchandise, access to and discounts on international events. Membership types: Individual (benefits outlined above), $60; Couple (all benefits plus additional membership card), $75; Student (for those under 26, it includes all benefits except Slow magazine). Contact: Slow Food USA, 20 Jay St., Ste. 313, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 718-260-8000; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.SlowFoodUSA.org. International memberships are available by country (contact: www.SlowFood.com or email@example.com). Memberships are available in some developing countries at reduced cost.
Clay Hubbs: What is the central message or mission of Slow Food?
Carlo Petrini: Our mission is more complex than people might imagine. By preaching the interconnection of gastronomy and politics, agriculture, and environment, Slow Food has become an active international player in the worlds of farming and ecology. We seek to link pleasure and food with awareness and responsibility by defending the biodiversity of our food supply, by promoting taste education and bringing together food producers and consumers through events and initiatives.
CH: What is your principal interest in spreading the Slow Food message abroad? Is it primarily to educate the general public on the importance of rejecting the culture of fast food and all that it represents, as Prince Charles said in his speech at Terra Madre, to “challenge the massed forces of globalization, the industrialization of agriculture, and the homogenization of food?” Or is it less political than that? As my son, Gregory Hubbs, who just returned from a 3-week vacation on a farm in Tuscany—where he gathered and enjoyed funghi porcini and other local foods with his host—says, “In Italy one eats and travels slow as an aesthetic choice: it simply feels good and tastes better.” What link do you see between the moral/political and the aesthetic/sensual when it comes to food and its appreciation and enjoyment?
CP: As I said, food and politics are interconnected. Slow Food is the intersection of ethics and pleasure, of ecology and gastronomy. On the one hand, it counters the standardization of taste, the power of agro-industrial multinationals and the folly of fast life; on the other, it wishes to restore pleasure to food and the slow rhythms of conviviality to the table. Pleasure is an aesthetic/sensual experience but it is also the result of responsible awareness: in a word, knowledge.
A true gastronome can’t ignore the strong connections that exist between plate and planet. Food is socially, biologically, culturally, and politically central to daily life, so it follows that what we eat and the production thereof have a profound effect on our surroundings: on the rural landscape and biodiversity. Behind every foodstuff are the people who made it, upholding farming and production traditions for our nourishment and satisfaction. The food we eat should taste good, it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or human health, and its producers should receive fair compensation for their work. We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers. If we are informed about how our food is produced and actively support the people who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process. As you can see, the achievement of pleasure through food has countless political and social implications.
CH: Are you surprised at the direction the Slow Food movement has taken in other countries—in North America in particular?
CP: No. The original movement, born in my hometown of Bra, in northern Italy, reflected a Latin approach to conviviality and eating pleasure easily accessible to other Italians, Spaniards, French, Portuguese, and so on. Food has traditionally been part and parcel of socialization down the Italian peninsula, and my town was the perfect incubator for a movement that sought to acknowledge its value. As Slow Food’s message gradually attracted international attention, it was naturally necessary to adapt its philosophy to a variety of cultural contexts. As I said earlier, our message is now highly complex and encompasses an array of issues. It seems to me logical and natural that different people should be attracted to different parts of that message according to who they are and where they live.
CH: Is there a connection between the agritourism movement in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, and Slow Food?
CP: Only in a general sense, as part of a broader movement toward awareness of food and the role of conviviality that has characterized Europe, and especially Italy, since the eighties.
CH: Can you mention other organizations with motives and objectives similar to those of Slow Food? [For example, one organization often mentioned in Transitions Abroad, Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), matches small organic farmers with visitors who are willing to help with chores for a few hours a day in exchange for room and board.]
CP: I believe I’m right in saying that there’s nobody quite like us in the world. Our approach to the problems of the world uses pleasure as its starting point: I can’t think of other organizations with such a unique project. Having said that, we obviously collaborate with scores of other organizations—from government agencies and NGOs to “food communities” and environmental associations—to make our ideas materialize.
CH: Finally, please talk about important present and future activities of Slow Food—what are some projects already underway or soon to begin that our readers may not know about? Are there ways they can become involved? Since Transitions Abroad’s emphasis is on practical, usable information that helps readers learn more about other cultures through direct involvement (working, studying, living), could you mention other favorite forms of cultural immersion?
CP: Our biggest events this year are the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, to be held in Turin, Italy. Terra Madre, first staged in 2004, is Slow Food’s groundbreaking world meeting of food communities, joining together thousands of producers of good, clean, and fair food from all over the world. At Terra Madre 2006 the focus was on the relationships within the food communities between producers, cooks, researchers, and academics.
The Salone del Gusto comprises a huge market, an enoteca, taste workshops, Slow Tour culinary excursions, lectures, conferences, and a “Theater of Taste” in which famous chefs cook for the public. It’s the biggest event of its kind in the world and is not to be missed for anyone interested in exploring the pleasures of the palate.
Another unique event is Slow Food on Film (www.slowfoodonfilm.it), an annual international film festival designed to create a new critical awareness of food culture. It provides incentives to produce and distribute short works of fiction and short documentaries with original themes on food and on gastronomic memory as a heritage to be saved.
Next year, we’ll be staging Cheese, our dairy product showcase, in Bra, and Slow Fish, an exhibition that brings together fishing communities to debate and explore solutions for the responsible enjoyment of seafood, in Genoa.
Here I’ve mentioned our major international events, but it’s important to remember that our national offices and local convivia stage hundreds of exciting initiatives every year.
I also wish to add that our University of Gastronomic Sciences is now operational at Pollenzo, near Bra, where students from all over the world study a syllabus combining humanities and sciences with food technology and culture, the defense of biodiversity, and the protection of food traditions. An extensive program of field seminars also brings students into direct contact with food producers around the world. A second campus in Colorno, in Emilia-Romagna, hosts 50 students in two postgraduate master courses.
Editors note: The Slow Food guide, Osterie & Locande d'Italia: A Guide to Traditional Places to Eat and Stay in Italy, is filled with addresses and food reviews, which, until this year, have been available only to Italians. Now English speaking travelers can get in on the secret.
Clay Hubbs was Transitions Abroad's original founder, editor, and publisher and was passionate in his love for great traditional food.