Slow Food is a political and cultural food movement that claims to have 85,000 members in 132 countries (as of 2009.)
The movement was founded by people who felt that traditional foods were disappearing. It aims to be an international organization, though the values, language and even the syntax is European-centric. For instance, it promotes “artisanal” food, a European transliteration that isn’t necessarily clear to the English-speaking mind. The movement is careful, though, in each locale to appeal to people’s sense of nationalism and regional pride.
The movement aims to preserve both commercial food products, and species of animals and plants, and urges people to be willing to pay more for food. Its supporters feel that people should use the time that modern conveniences have freed up for them by cooking more.
Though not necessarily tied to organic food movements, Slow Food supporters are opposed to eating foods out of season.
Slow Food appears to bring together three camps of people who are opposed to the “globalisation” of food: foodies, environmentalists, and people who can be seen as being as “left-wing” politically.
Slow Food boasts 83,000 members as of 2005. There were 1,500 members in Britain, 1,000 in Canada and 450 in Ireland. They call each of their branches a “convivium.”
Every two years, the movement holds a “Salone del Gusto” (“Salon of Taste”) in Turino, Italy in October. There are talks, seminars, workshops, and people selling Slow Food approved products.
The movement maintains what it calls an “Ark of Taste” for each country that it is active in. The Ark is an imaginary sanctuary for threatened foods, a directory of products that it encourages people to support by buying.
The movement has sponsored a “slow city” (“Cittaslow” in Italian) scheme since 1999. Under the scheme, towns with a population of under 50,000 that publicly endorse the movement’s aims are awarded the “Cittaslow” label. There were three approved cities in the UK as of 2006: Ludlow in Shropshire, and Aylsham and Diss in Norfolk.
In October 2004, Slow Food’s “Terra Madre” (“mother earth”) convention in Turin attracted Slow Food producers from over 134 countries, 5,000 delegates and over $2.4 million US in subsidies from various governments for the convention.
In 2005, a “Slow Food” university — the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) — was founded near Alba, Italy. At the university, no cooking is actually taught: the goal is to produce “gastronomes”, not “chefs”, to understand food rather than make it. The university advocates against globalization and promotes local food. To do this, it focusses teaching on production, distribution, promotion and communication of “quality food.” It offers courses in agronomy, anthropology, biology, food analysis, food history, marketing, etc. The university offers a three-year undergraduate degree, and a one year master’s.
There are many people, though, that are sceptical about the movement because they believe they see a good deal of unconnected dots in its thinking.
While supporters, for instance, are opposed to things such as decorating a lemon cake with raspberries in February in London (as raspberries are out of season then), they never seem to ask themselves when exactly are the lemons ever in season in London? Many critics point out that eating seasonally is a lot easier in places that don’t have seasons. For most people in the northern hemisphere, however, eating seasonally would involve a return to nothing but parsnips and turnip for 6 months, a past to which they’d have to be dragged back, kicking and screaming.
Many Slow Fooders point to the past with nostalgia, but forget that foods for working class people and peasants weren’t idyllic — it was a time of hunger and malnutrition for most of the population. Books such as “The Condition of the English Working Class” (Friedrich Engels, 1844) and Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (Edwin Chadwick, 1842) reveal the conditions that ordinary people lived under. Even the idyllic thatched cottages were places of death: if the families in them didn’t have the money to keep the thatch in constant repair, the rotting thatch became a haven for fungus that would infest the lungs of the people living below it.
Some feel that the movement is an ivory tower for chattering classes with large disposable budgets who can afford the expensive specialty products they urge others to buy. And in the West, it is true: middle-class people can afford what is perhaps the broadest range of fresh, in and out of season fruit and vegetables ever yet historically available. But even in the West, working class people with tighter budgets still don’t have the luxury of range choice that the middle class now takes so for granted that it can turn its back on many of the choices.
Slow Food also promotes the idea of reducing the number of miles that food travels to reach a consumer. To the foodie wing, this means that the food is fresher and better; to the environmentalist wing, this means reduced energy emissions.
Some economists, though, dispute the idea of “food miles.” They say the concept of “food miles” is too simple; that it can actually use less energy to grow tomatoes in Spain and transport them to the UK, than it can to grow them locally in the UK in heated greenhouses. And besides, they point out, most food miles are actually incurred locally by people driving to buy their food — sometimes, no doubt, in search of the very specialty products promoted by the Slow Food movement.
The Slow Food movement is opposed to many traditional food product names being applied to the modern food products. And, it’s hard to find any disagreement that some food products now being made on a large, industrial scale bear almost nothing in common with the products that used to be known by that name before mass production, except perhaps name, shape and colour.
Many food items, though, as we know from food history, have evolved over time, and no longer bear any resemblance to what our forefathers would recognize by that name — for instance, blancmange was once a sweet pudding that contained shredded chicken breast, but if you served that now, most people wouldn’t touch it. Should recipes get frozen at an arbitrarily-chosen moment in time? And, many food items promoted by the Slow Food movement are food items that used to be consumed by the poor simply because they were what the poor could afford. They were often food items were available free from a near-by meadow. Many of these food items now cost so much that only an affluent person can afford to consume them — they are long since out of the reach of today’s poor. And, for many food items today, whether they meet the approval of the chattering classes or not, it’s the mass-scale of their production that in modern times makes them what is affordable for the poor or working-poor.
Slow Fooders, some people feel, have created a cult of artificial garden-freshness, where everyone has his or her own garden and runs things from the garden plot to the dining room table. It wasn’t like that in the “old days”, though. You bought stuff at markets, or you had so much coming ripe at once that it might have sat around in bowls or baskets for a few days in the summer kitchen or you preserved it to get you through the winter when there were no fruit or vegetables to be had at all otherwise. The goal is fine — to try to use as fresh as possible — but surely that’s not new. What cook over the past several millennia hasn’t tried to live by that? The art of cooking, however, has come about in making memorable meals out of food items that weren’t the ideal. To be able to insist on artificial ideas is in itself the mark of a very affluent class of people, little different from the kind of Romans who might have insisted on ice freshly run down the mountain. The very peasant cuisines that are extolled by the movement — such as that of Tuscany — arose from having to make do without the “more desirable” items that couldn’t be afforded.
Slow Food, some say, is expensive food that the movement equates with not just with good taste (food snobbery has been with us forever, and will always be with us, under whatever guises), but also with good ethics. If you buy Slow Food approved food, you are a decent and moral person. But, if you can’t afford it, the implication is — though Slow Fooders would protest — that shopping within your means becomes equated with a lack of ethics, or even immorality.
Some opponents say that they’re actually very happy to give growers in other geographic locations a market for their produce by not restricting themselves to local products. Others say Slow Food is a form of economic nationalism, a rebirth of autarky and beggar-thy-neighbour policies under yet another new guise. In fact, many economic nationalists with other axes to grind, such as the British National Party, happily embrace Slow Food principles in order to reduce British reliance on other countries, such as Italy itself.
And, some point out, that while Slow Food producers dismiss other producers as “being in it for the money” and trying to “make a profit out of food”, their own products are some of the most expensive available, and they fight tooth and nail to keep others out of their market niche which might cause their own profits to be reduced.
On balance, the Slow Food movement could appear to be a very exciting movement, promoting high quality food, which all seem able to appreciate. At the same time, however, there seems to be enough contradictions and holes in its philosophy that the points raised by its critics can’t be just waved away.
The Slow Food movement had its roots in a social club network sponsored by the Italian communist party of northern Italy.
It was founded by a Carlo Petrini in the Langhe region of Piedmont, northern Italy.
Petrini was born in Bra, Cuneo, Piedmont on 22 June 1949. He studied sociology at Trento, and along the way, did some wine courses in France. In 1977, he started doing food and wine writing for two communist daily newspapers, Il Manifesto and L’Unità, and then later worked as a journalist for “La Gola” magazine. On the 26th / 27th of 1977, he and some friends formed a predecessor to the Slow Food movement: an organization they called “ArciGola.” It was a food group branch of ARCI ( “Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana”, aka “Association of Recreational Clubs of Italy”), affiliated with the Italian communist party.
A few years passed, with Petrini occupying himself with his writing and his work with ArciGola. Then, on 20 March 1986, McDonald’s opened in Rome near the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna in an old palazzo. (The steps were actually built by the French, as well as the Trinità dei Monti church at the top of them.) It was the first McDonald’s in Italy. Petrini was livid at the thought of a McDonald’s in Italy, particularly in that spot (some speculate that part of his objection was on personal aesthetic grounds, to see the signage there.) He used the occasion of McDonald’s opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome to grab publicity for the ideas that he had been forming over the past several years. He gave out home baked pizza at the demonstration he organized there.
He attracted 10,000 members to his movement in the first 3 years. A manifesto, written by Petrini and Folco Portinari, formally founding the Slow Food movement was signed 9 November 1989 at the Opera Comique in Paris by delegates from 15 countries.
Petrini later supported another campaign against a McDonald’s in Italy, which had opened in Altamura, Apulia in 2001. This time, the campaign was successful, and the McDonald’s closed in January 2006, with the loss of 20 local jobs.
Many visitors to Rome, even though they might not eat at the McDonald’s on the Spanish steps, still visit it — for the clean, reliable public rest-rooms.
Literature & Lore
“That food has always been, and will continue to be, the basis for one of our greater snobbisms does not explain the fact that the attitude toward the food choice of others is becoming more and more heatedly exclusive until it may well turn into one of those forms of bigotry against which gallant little committees are constantly planning campaigns in the cause of justice and decency.”
— Cornelia Otis Skinner.
AEA Technology Environment. The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development. London: DEFRA Economics and Statistics. July 2005. Retrieved March 2006 from http://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/reports/foodmiles/default.asp.
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