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Penne as Protest

The Slow Food movement began on the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986. McDonald’s planned to open a franchise there, and not everyone was thrilled about it. Italian journalist Carlo Petrini was especially angry. Offended by what he considered to be an affront to the landmark, Petrini descended onto the Steps accompanied by a small group of protestors. Instead of using signs to picket, however, Petrini and his followers brandished bowls of penne and other home-cooked Italian dishes, determined to demonstrate the social and culinary costs of homogenized eating.

In 1989, a manifesto drafted by Slow Food co-founder, Folco Portinari, was endorsed by delegates from 15 countries. The manifesto addressed more than just food. It confronted the contemporary lifestyle at large, condemning the “virus” of fast living.

“We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus,” fulminated Portinari. “Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors…of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.”

The Ecology of Gastronomy

Over two decades, the Slow Foods movement has burgeoned to include more than 100,000 members in more than 100 countries. Its ethos is encapsulated in a term coined by Petrini: eco-gastronomy. Emphasizing pleasurable eating, sustainable agriculture, economic fairness and universal access to healthy food, eco-gastronomy combines the study of culture and food (gastronomy) with an awareness of the environment (eco).

The movement is more diffuse than one might expect. It encompasses a varied panoply of organizations, each with its own mission and purpose. It includes the Youth Food Movement, which educates youth on Slow Food, and Slow Food in Schools, which seeks to revolutionize eating in schools. It includes the Terra Madre network, which connects food communities with cooks and academics to advocate sustainable agriculture, and the Ark of Taste, which actively preserves endangered strains of foodstuffs. And it publishes regular newsletters and books while maintaining an extensive network of informative websites.

Among the Stars

Petrini has become something of an international celebrity in recent years. The journalist-cum-food promoter has garnered audiences with British Prime Minister David Cameron, in addition to other world leaders. He counts the British Prince Charles as a friend.

When he bends the ear of these powerful people, his message is simple. Instead of using their global influence to perpetuate Western commoditization of native foods—a la the recent McDonald’s campaign to expropriate Italian tastes for its McItaly brand—global leaders should actively encourage “virtuous globalization.” In Petrin’s mind, virtuous globalization encourages family farmers to market traditional foods in nontraditional places, connecting producers in one part of the world with consumers in another. As Petrini openly acknowledges, the process of globalization is incontrovertible. The Slow Foods mission is to make the process more equitable for all.

Conviviality and Education

The concept of conviviality is also very much at the heart of the Slow Food movement. Conviviality, to Petrini, means taking pleasure in the process of cooking and pleasure in the process of eating. This means sharing meals with others. (Presumably he isn’t a fan of the Power Bar.) Local Slow Foods chapters are called “conviviums.” These groups have local leaders who promote local farmers, local artisans, and the pleasures of slow eating.

In 2004, Petrini founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. There, students can pursue undergraduate and master degrees in food studies. In 2008, the first American university followed suit. The University of New Hampshire, inspired by a visit from Petrini, launched its own Eco-Gastronomy major. Students are required to spend a semester in Pollenzo in order to graduate.

Born in the USA

Ironically, Slow Food has proved remarkably successful in the United States. Popular authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), as well as celebrity chef Alice Waters, have helped the Slow Food USA membership grow into the tens of thousands.

In 2008, Waters founded the inaugural Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco. The city welcomed the event with open arms, with Mayor Gavin Newsom encouraging the organization replace part of the city hall lawn with a vegetable garden. The event featured a speech by Petrini, panels participated in by Pollan and Schlosser, a marketplace and food tastings, and other events. More than 50,000 people attended.

In the United States, Slow Food has been involved in post-Katrina New Orleans as well, with members raising money and devoting time and energy to help restaurants reopen.

Critiques and Criticism

One might think that the Slow Food movement is invulnerable from criticism. Petrini is perceived by many as a kind of saint, a sort of contemporary Mother Theresa. But elitism is a recurrent charge leveled at the group, as the local, organic and sometimes rare foods they promote are often more expensive than the mass-produced processed foods found in grocery stores. Petrini has countered by saying that so-called cheap food is only cheap in the short run; the real ecological and financial costs are enormous, though spread over generations. By spending a little more money and consuming a little less food, Petrini argues, people will improve their own health and the health of their communities at the same time.

A more substantive criticism has been leveled by the historian Rachel Laudan, who argues that Slow Foodies often romanticize past methods of eating without fully comprehending their history. In the past, in most cultures, people spent enormous amounts of their time cooking and preparing their food, eating less, working harder, and usually living shorter than we do. There are virtues to fast food, too.

Our challenge here, as in most other aspects of modern life, is to utilize the benefits provided by modern technology without forgetting the wisdom and lessons of our collective past.