Certainly it’s hard to take seriously a political movement that has a snail for a mascot and a manifesto calling for “a firm defense of quiet material pleasure.” But after learning more about it, I’ve come to think that Slow Food might actually have a serious contribution to make to the debate over environmentalism and globalism. Not that any self-respecting member of Slow Food would ever want you to think they take themselves that seriously; pleasure is at the very heart of their movement, which is dedicated to the proposition that the best way to defend the planet’s cultural and biological diversity is to enjoy it at the table, slowly. Whether it means to or not, Slow Food is mounting a provocative challenge to some stale lefty assumptions about consumption, free trade and the place (if any) of pleasure in our politics.
As its name suggests, Slow Food is a reactionary organization, but reactionary in the best sense. It took shape more than three decades ago in the brain of Carlo Petrini, a leftwing Italian journalist dismayed by the opening of a McDonald’s on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome—and perhaps equally dismayed by the hangdog dourness of his comrades on the left. After years of activism he had come to the conclusion that “those who suffer for others do more damage to humanity than those who enjoy themselves,” as he recently told a group of journalists. “Pleasure is a way of being at one with yourself and others.” So rather than picket McDonald’s’ new outpost in the heart of Rome, or drive a tractor through it à la José Bové, Petrini organized a group of like-minded activist-cum-sybarites to simply celebrate all those qualities that McDonald’s’ inexorable drive toward the homogenization of world taste threatens: the staunchly local, the irreplaceably unique, the leisurely and communal. His (so-very-Italian) idea was to launch a political movement conceived under the signs of pleasure and irony: Dionysus meets Dario Fo.
McDonald’s is still serving Happy Meals by the Spanish Steps (though Petrini did persuade the company to hold the golden arches), yet Slow Food has emerged as a thriving international organization, with more than 100,000 members in 150 countries as of 2013, a successful publishing operation (Slow Food’s Gambero Rosso—an indispensable Zagat-like guide to Italian food and wine—pays most of the bills), and the Salone del Gusto, a biannual trade show that brings tens of thousands of eaters together with artisanal food producers. Just as important, Slow Food has launched a handful of decidedly eccentric institutions and ideas—the Ark of Taste, the presidia, “eco-gastronomy,” and “virtuous globalization.” Unpack these terms and you have a pretty good idea what’s afoot—and at stake.
The Ark of Taste is basically the list of endangered food plants and animals that Slow Food has resolved to defend against the rising global tide of McDonald’s-ization. Some American passengers recently added to the Ark include Iroquois white corn, the red abalone, the Narragansett turkey, the Sun Crest peach and the Delaware Bay oyster. We’ve come to think of biodiversity as a biological crisis of wild species, but the survival of the domesticated species we’ve depended on for centuries is no less important. For one thing, when the latest patented hybrid-corn variety meets its bacterial or fungal match, as all monocultures sooner or later do, breeders will need these heirloom varieties to refresh the gene pool. Should that Iroquois white corn fall out of production, as it very nearly did a decade ago, an irreplaceable and quite possibly crucial set of corn genes would be lost to the world.
Of course seed-saver groups have been around for a while now, preserving heirloom varieties from the onslaught of patented hybrids, but Slow Food takes that project a step further. The movement understands that every set of genes on its Ark of Taste encodes not only a set of biological traits but a set of cultural practices as well, and in some cases even a way of life. Take the example of Iroquois white corn. By working to find new markets for this ancient cultivar, Slow Food (along with the Collective Heritage Institute, its partner in this particular project) is ensuring the livelihood of the Native Americans who grow, roast and grind this corn (on the Cattaraugus reservation in western New York) and the specific culinary and spiritual uses that corn has been selected over hundreds of years to support. “Save the Corsican Chèvre!” might not sound like a life-and-death battle cry, until you realize, as Slow Food teaches, that as those goats go, so goes something greater: a specific, irreplaceable mode that a particular people have devised for living on, and off, a particular corner of the earth. Save the genes, and you help save the land and the culture as well.
Slow Food recognizes that the best place to preserve biological and cultural diversity is not in museums or zoos but, as it were, on our plates: by finding new markets for precious-but-obscure foodstuffs. This is what is meant by “eco-gastronomy.”
Slow Food features the foods and their producers at its Salone del Gusto (Hall of Taste), and organizes tastings at its local chapters (called Convivia), where an effort is made to educate palates in the course of exercising them at a feast. This emphasis on celebration and connoisseurship has left Slow Food open to charges of elitism, but the organization has worked hard to reach beyond the affluent foodie crowd. Slow Food USA has launched a garden project for public schools, and a great many of the foods it has championed in the United States are distinctly populist and often cheap: Barbecue and beer are as much a part of the movement as endangered oysters and rare sakes. Sure, fast food is always going to be “cheaper” than slow food, but only because the real costs of the industrial food chain—to the health of the environment, the consumer and the worker—never get counted.
Along with the industrialization of our food system has come an industrialization of eating, and the former won’t be effectively countered until people have rejected the latter. Slow Food aims to teach us to taste what makes Iroquois corn special (it’s wonderful stuff, with an earthy, sweet, extra-corny flavor that makes commercial corn products taste pallid by comparison) and to slow down to enjoy some slow dishes traditionally cooked with it. (Like posole, a smoky Southwestern stew of dried roasted corn that, made right, can take all day.)
Paradoxically, sometimes the best way to rescue the most idiosyncratic local products and practices is to find a global market for them. This is what Slow Food means by “virtuous globalization,” a simple but powerful idea that throws a wrench of complexity into the usual black-or-white arguments over free trade. It is no accident that food has emerged as a flash point in the free-trade debate; what we eat is a marker of our cultural identity, which is why threats to that identity, whether in the form of a new fast-food outlet or a genetically engineered crop, can excite such vehement reactions, as companies like McDonald’s and Monsanto have discovered.
Certainly, the main tendency of globalism has been in the direction of the McDonald’s ideal of “one world, one taste,” but Slow Food makes a good case that globalism’s power can also be exploited to save the local cultures most threatened by it. So a Piedmontese grower of a rare, wonderfully tasty but comparatively unproductive strain of wheat who can’t find a local market can be, through Slow Food, hooked up with a company like Williams-Sonoma, which knows exactly where to find the affluent home bakers willing to pay a premium for a flour that makes such distinctive bread. One menu item at a time, Slow Food is demonstrating how global trade and mass communication can be turned into powerful tools for rescuing cultural and biological diversity from precisely those perils of global trade and mass communication. Think of it as a form of economic jujitsu.
Carlo Petrini himself, a round, stubble-bearded Piedmontese who looks like he knows how to enjoy himself at a table, has a genius for publicity that has been essential to the success of this strategy. He understands that the glamour that attaches to lavishly advertised global brands like McDonald’s can be effectively countered only by creating a rival form of glamour. But how do you glamorize Iroquois corn flour, or the rather scrawny Narragansett turkey? By recruiting great chefs to cook with these foods and extol their virtues. We live in an age when chefs wield unprecedented influence, and Slow Food has been quick to enlist them under its banner. Soon after Patrick Martins opened Slow Food’s U.S. outpost in 2000, he invited Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, to join the movement, and it wasn’t long before much of America’s culinary establishment had signed on too. Today, Slow Food USA has 25,000 members and more than 200 regional Convivia.
Pleasure itself is all but extinct in American environmentalism (not to mention American eating), and pleasure is part of what Slow Food aims to redeem, by demonstrating that, at least when it comes to the politics of food, the best choice is often the tastiest. Eco-gastronomy isn’t going to save the world, but if it can bring politics and pleasure together on the American plate, the Vesuvian apricot and Delaware Bay oyster won’t be the only species to benefit.
Michael Pollan is author of the New York Times bestsellers Food Rules (2010), In Defense of Food (2008), The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and The Botany of Desire (2001). His new book is Cooked (2013). Originally published in Mother Jones. Reprinted with permission of the author.
SLOW FOOD STORY | Italy, 2013, 74m | Director/writer: Stefano Sardo
Followed by panel discussion with Carlo Petrini, Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, and the presentation of the Participant Media’s first Annual Food, Inc. Movement Award, by Waters.