Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, recently made a rare visit to the United States to spread the word about Slow Food and to promote his newest book Slow Food Nation (Rizzoli, $22.50). He didn't make very many stops while in the country, but he did go to North Carolina to attend a picnic thrown by the local Slow Food chapter. The "Farm to Fork" event was held on a farm outside of Chapel Hill. Over 20 restaurants and 15 farms participated, the farmers and chefs sharing tents to showcase their interconnected produce.
Petrini started Slow Food in part as a reaction to a McDonalds opening a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Slow Food is a simple idea that reaches into complex territory. At its core is a special brand of gastronomic ludditism, the idea being that we should go back to the food producing and traditions that pre-date the industrial revolution. But the idea touches many facets of ideology, from organics to environmentalism to a kind of reverse-globalization to the social aspects of sitting down to a meal.
North Carolina has one of the strongest local food communities in the country, and it was this that brought Petrini to the area. At last year's Terra Madre, the international Slow Food conference held in Italy, North Carolina brought the second largest U.S. delegation of farmers. For years, the area's chefs have worked with the local farms, and seasonality is gospel in the Triangle's restaurants.
Because of my connection to the area, having lived and written about food there for years, I was asked to go down and attend the picnic. I also had a chance to chat with Petrini, as well as hear him speak.
Petrini is charming, gregarious and funny, even though a translator. You can see why he became the international spokesperson for eating with purpose and passion -- he seems like he would be a fantastic dinner guest. In his new book, Petrini has formulated three major factors that we should look for in our food -- that it be good, clean, and fair. He speaks eloquently about the metabolism of the earth, and the environmental aspect of Slow Food is easy to grasp. The fair part is also an appealing political viewpoint -- that we treat our farm workers with respect, that we not take advantage of unfair trade policies to exploit workers here or elsewhere. But the "good" part is much of what has made the movement. Petrini would like us all to eat locally, but perhaps just as importantly he would like us to all eat well.
It is this aspect of Slow Food that has attracted so many chefs, the core belief that enjoyment of our meals is key. Not only are the main proponents of Slow Food chefs, but for the most part they are chefs at high end restaurants who care deeply about quality and taste. Which brings up a strange irony: in America, the obesity epidemic is suffered mainly by the country's poor. In other words, the people who most need the health benefits of fresh, locally grown foods are the least likely to hear about it, as well as the least likely to be able to afford it.
Petrini responds to this dilemma by saying that the answer is to eat better food and eat less of it, and that if we did that, eating well wouldn't actually cost any more. It's a simplistic and optimistic answer, and one that, in the land of $0.99 value menus and 10-for-$1 boxes of ramen noodles isn't likely to convince many poor parents trying to feed their kids.
While Petrini's ideas may have a long way to go before they solve the problems of obesity and bad nutrition in poor communities, what he has to say about the plight of the small farmer and globalization is highly relevant. In Slow Food Nation, he describes a poignant experience he had while traveling through Italy, when he stopped for a favorite regional dish made with local peppers and found that the chef had substituted them with cheap peppers grown in Holland because the local variety had become scarce. He then visited the farm where the local peppers had been grown and found that they were instead growing tulip bulbs and shipping them to Holland -- an irony almost too perfect, but still, a familiar tale of what has become of food in the global economy. In starting Slow Food, Petrini hoped to reverse situations such as this one, to encourage food producers to continue to grow the foods that are native to their regions, and to preserve local food artisans and traditions.
In Europe, this concept is intrinsic in the identity of the cultures -- we can hardly imagine Italy without thinking of its food, and the same goes for most European countries. Part of what startled Petrini and caused him to take action was his perception that his native land was losing it's culinary traditions, and with them the national identity. This is a message that is harder to get across in America, a country made up of immigrants with a food culture that reflects that melting pot. If anything, America has gotten its national identity from the very blending of cultures that Petrini is hoping to avoid in his homeland.
But the South is uniquely suited to hear Petrini's message about preserving food traditions, because the South has the nation's most complete regional cuisine. Canned foods and the loss of family farms and local produce over the last 50 years have threatened the greatness of Southern cooking, but unlike other American regional cuisines it has stayed mostly intact. The Slow Food movement, as well as a surge in regionalism among top-notch chefs in the South, make Petrini's ideas all the more relevant to this part of the country.
While I find myself amazed at the strength and rapid growth of the Slow Food movement, I also wonder what we can do to stress the importance of supporting farms, of having a safe food supply, and of the benefits of social and family eating to communities that aren't already swept up in the ideals of Slow Food. I put this question to Petrini, and his response was quite confident. Standing in an idyllic field surrounded by farmers and chefs working happily together he said, "These ideas are destined to grow."