March 26, 2013, 8:30 pm
By MARK BITTMAN
Mark Bittman on food and all things related.
AMSTERDAM — It may be that Slow Food’s original focus on taste and the quality of food — on gastronomy — simply seemed too narrow, and therefore elitist. But at least since its “Puebla Declaration” in 2007, Slow Food has become a force to be reckoned with, probably the only international organization that integrates concerns about the environment, tradition, labor, health, animal welfare … along with real cooking, taste and pleasure.
Slow Food was founded by Carlo Petrini, who remains its president. He was a food writer when he launched a protest in 1986 against the opening of an enormous McDonald’s branch (more than 400 seats) in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna (better known to Anglophones as the Spanish Steps) — the first McDonald’s in Italy. More than 20 years before the coining of the term “locavore” and “the Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Petrini saw the battle as being against the industrialization of food, and now, a generation later, he was clearly prescient.
The situation has gotten both better and worse in the intervening time: fast food is practically hegemonic; cooking is often seen as little more than a lovely hobby for those with “time”; the number of small- and medium-size farms has plummeted; and although there is good food to be had by any who can afford it, overall production could hardly be more industrial.
There is, however, a growing movement of people who believe that we can reduce both hunger and obesity while improving the quality of food, the life of farmers, the impact of agriculture on the environment and health, and so on. And Petrini has become, especially in Europe, a man to be listened to on all of these subjects, an elder statesman who’s recognized as a founding father of this movement.
We were both at the Food Film Festival here, organized by a branch of Slow Food called the Youth Food Movement. I had an opportunity to sit and chat with Petrini. (“Chat” may be the wrong word, since we spoke in three languages, only one of which I’m any good at; there is interpretation and a small amount of paraphrasing here.)
Giuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images The founder of the Slow Food movement Carlo Petrini in Turin, Oct. 25, 2012.
First I asked if my original misperceptions of Slow Food as an organization of “gourmets” was wrong. He had two answers to this. First: “The nature of Slow Food has changed. When we began Terra Madre” — a biennial conference in Turin, Italy — “we were joined by Asians, Africans and Latin Americans, and we realized that ‘gastronomy’ was perceived by everyone in different ways, because our histories and conditions are different. But we all realized we had something in common, and that this fraternity was an important value.”
But, he reminded me, “gastronomy is holistic. It’s not only recipes and cooking but agriculture, physics, biology, genetics, chemistry, history, economy, politics and ecology. If we adapt this vision of gastronomy, our relationships with food and each other changes.”
One problem, of course, was that gastronomy became equated with “gourmet-ism,” or something of concern only to bon vivants. (He uses the word “gastronomer” as we might use “foodie” or, more kindly, one who appreciates the pleasures of food.) But now, he said: “A gastronomer who is not an environmentalist is just stupid. Whereas an environmentalist who is not a gastronomer is sad. It’s possible to change the world even while preserving the concept of the right of pleasure.”
These, of course, are not the only challenges:
“People in rich countries need to regenerate our way of thinking to give value to food, which has been lost in the last 50 years. As a result, we have a systems crisis: by using more energy than we produce to grow food — and we’re using 76 percent of our water for agriculture — we’re reaching the end of the planet’s resources. And young people understand we can’t survive with this and are beginning to act. Not just Slow Food and this Youth Food Movement. Look at Occupy.
“The main difficulty is that politicians don’t understand that we need a new paradigm. They continue with the old ones: finance, production, consumption and waste.
“So we’re producing enough food for 12 billion people, yet 1 billion out of our 7 billion aren’t eating enough. And we hear that because there will be 9 billion people in 2050, we must produce more. But more production creates more environmental problems and more waste.”
On solutions: “First is the local economy. Rather than move food from one country to another, we need to change the system of distribution and help the farmers around our houses. We have people who want to farm but cannot — why can huge companies get credit but young farmers cannot? — and we have a broken knowledge chain that we need to rebuild. We need a stronger and more productive dialogue between ‘official’ science and traditional knowledge.
“We have to break down the separation between production and consumption and say ‘we are all citizens’ — a new concept of respect for agriculture is very important. We must give back the value of menial work, pay farmers fairly and use their products, even if it means giving them away to poor people. Obviously that’s better than wasting it.
“This is a process related to a new civilization.”
My interpretation: a democratic food system is possible only in a real democracy, and working for or creating one of these means working for or creating both.
Have we made progress? Should we be hopeful? When I ask these questions, his response is almost exactly what I heard from Wendell Berry a year ago. “Everything has to start again, but everything already has started again,” Petrini said. “Sometimes I see this crisis and I’m not optimistic, but then I look at the communities that are changing the way they live. This is a river that is flowing under the soil and it is soon going to come out.
“We can access a new vision, but it will take patience. Politics is a problem, but you can already see the way. It’s straight and determined, but this is a slow revolution. Slow. Slow.”
Finally, I asked him about the rumors of him becoming Italy’s minister of agriculture: “That would be crazy,” he answered. “Slow Food is more important.” Maybe so.