Fall 2004

Society and Culture

Time to Eat

Edwin Stepp

An Italian food critic’s joke has spawned a serious worldwide movement opposing fast food.

Most people are unaware that in 1986 a global power invaded Rome. Conventional history books don’t record it, and very few people at the time took note. Romans shuttled off to work, school and shops in their usual frenzied manner. Tourists flocked to the traditional ancient sites, undeterred by the invasion. The bored and idle youth still sat aimless at the Trevi Fountain or dreamed of life and love in the gelateria and bistros. But a handful of defenders were aware and marched to oppose “the new barbarians.”

Carlo Petrini, a journalist from northwest Italy and the leader of the determined group, led his small army into battle with great energy and enthusiasm. These opposing warriors were not the typical grim-faced fighters, however. In fact, they were smiling and laughing. Unlike their counterparts in Spain and France, who had faced similar invasions and had answered with violent terrorist acts, they wanted to launch their counteroffensive in a positive way. So instead of bullets and bombs, Petrini chose the most unlikely of weapons: bowls of penne pasta.

The defenders . . . had immediately seen the force penetrating Rome’s ancient walls as a threat to Italian culture,

The invader was McDonald’s, the American fast-food chain, and the defenders were members of a small wine and food club in northern Italy who had immediately seen the force penetrating Rome’s ancient walls as a threat to Italian culture. They brandished their pasta bowls and spoons proudly as a symbol to rival the Golden Arches.

SLOW START 

Here in the eternal city, just down from the famous Spanish Steps, Petrini’s revolutionary movement experienced its humble beginnings. But the rebels who participated that day at the opening of the burger-purveying giant’s first restaurant in Rome couldn’t have known how much their resistance campaign would grow.

The fledgling group began by choosing a name for itself that was in keeping with the positive spirit it wished to adopt. With their tongues planted solidly in their cheeks, members dubbed the movement “Slow Food,” but as with any good satire, the joke had a very serious undertone.

Petrini and his colleagues continued to meet to define the threats of fast food, which ultimately led them to a much broader discussion of the dangers of globalization. Petrini preached that one of the most obvious is the threat to culture, and at the heart of most cultures is food.

The journalist-turned-activist was fully aware that his little protest was not going to stop the huge multinational fast-food chains from encroaching on Italian soil. Indeed, this was not his intent. But little did he realize the impact that the demonstration would have on the hearts and minds of citizens around the world who recognized that, as advanced as the global food distribution system has become, many vital elements have been nudged out of our diets.

Within three years of their first public event, the movement became international. The founders met with affiliates in Paris in November 1989 and adopted the official Slow Food Manifesto. Representatives from all over Europe and as far away as Japan and Argentina laid out the values of the movement, including a condemnation of an “insidious virus [called] Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods.” They adopted the snail as their symbol and declared, “Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.”

The original manifesto confirms that the founders did not yet envision the potential scope of the movement. It addressed members’ commitment to pleasure and enjoyment of life. Since those early days, however, the Slow Food organization has grown to 80,000 members in more than 100 countries. And its mission has grown far beyond a condemnation of the Big Mac and fries. Being a practical group, they conceded that globalization also brought benefits. It could be used in a positive way to effect important changes. The group has therefore been advocating more altruistic goals over the past 15 years, such as preserving local agricultural products, endangered cultures, and small farmers and producers. Petrini coined the term “virtuous globalization” to suggest that the global marketplace be used to build demand for and awareness of the products of those who are dedicated to sustainable, organic farming.

AT THE CRITICAL STAGE 

Petrini is not oblivious to the fact that the movement faces criticism. The most often heard is that it is elitist, with goals that only the wealthy can adopt. Critics say, for example, that locally grown, organic and specialty foods are so much more expensive that poorer families and communities do not have access to them or cannot take advantage of them. Petrini admits that this is a problem, but he believes that with proper education and more demand from consumers for these products, this obstacle will disappear or at least be lessened over time. He also envisions a future where more and more small producers will market directly to the consumer, and that, he assures, will bring costs down.

Ultimately individuals must shift their priorities. “You need to be prepared to pay more for quality.”

But ultimately individuals must shift their priorities. “You need to be prepared to pay more for quality,” Petrini told the New York Times in a July 2003 interview. “We’re too used to cheap food. We need to be eating better-quality food but less of it. There are problems of obesity because people don’t understand that. Slow Food believes you should eat less—eat more in moderation. That would help solve this elitist critique, and it would also improve the food that we do eat. . . . So the goal is not to make it cost less. The goal is to eat less.”

Critics have also leveled charges that the movement is not practical for the average person. Who in real life can spend five hours each day preparing and consuming their evening meal?

Petrini answers: “Slow Food is not against McDonald’s just because it hates hamburgers and French fries and regards spending a long time around the dinner table as compulsory. A slow pace can sometimes become agonizing. . . . Conversely, fast food doesn’t have to be disagreeable, and there are some traditional ways of eating it—archetypes of McDonald’s in a way. . . . So it is not just a question of opposing slow to fast, but rather of highlighting more important dichotomies, like carefulness and carelessness or attentiveness and haste: attentiveness to the selection of ingredients and the sequence of flavors, to how the food is prepared and the sensory stimuli it gives as it is consumed, to the way it is presented and the company with whom we share it” (Slow Food: The Case for Taste, 2001).

In his book In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honoré sums up the movement in one word: balance. He writes that “despite what some critics say, the Slow movement is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. . . . On the contrary, the movement is made up of people . . . who want to live better in a fast-paced, modern world. . . . Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto —the right speed.”

Another problem the movement has faced is its focus on pleasure. For those who dismiss the trend toward Slowness because of concern that it is hedonistic, Petrini is quick to make an important distinction: “Pleasure was, and is, a thorny subject: moralistic people feel itchy at the sound of the word. . . . They all make the mistake of considering pleasure as synonymous with ‘excess’. . . . There is no form of pleasure that the passage of time will not make us take for granted or even dislike, no matter how lovely it may be at first.”

He continues: “It is a sin to be intemperate, to throw oneself into a hunt for limitless pleasure. It is not a sin (indeed it is temperance, a cardinal virtue!) to enjoy wine and food as they are meant to be enjoyed. Not for nothing is the word il bendidio (God’s abundance) a synonym for food in the Italian language.”

PRACTICALLY THERE 

Who doesn’t long for a slower-paced life in today’s nanosecond world? Most people in the Western world lament that it is almost impossible to live a simple life anymore. The demands of the workplace and pressures at home—from raising children to paying the bills—force many into a frenzied pace that is difficult to slow down without first enacting major changes. Yet many people within the various Slow movements around the world are finding ways to achieve some balance. The movement is still very much an experiment and needs to continue to grow as it finds a way to spread to a larger consumer base and poorer communities. It will require a dramatic shift in societal values before it can be proclaimed practical for everyone and completely successful.

The values that society must accept before most people can live the “Slow Life” are not new. Honoré’s single-word summation of these principles is worth repeating here. Balance is a very difficult thing to define across the world’s diverse cultures. It must be reevaluated from nation to nation and within each ethnic group. But some of the values within these movements are eternal and essential for civil society to continue. Honoré reminds us that at the heart of such values is time and how we use it: “All the things that bind us together and make life worth living—community, family, friendship—thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time.” 

All the things that bind us together and make life worth living—community, family, friendship—thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time.”

Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness

There are those who would argue that there isn’t a direct link, but is it a coincidence that the decline of the family structure in Western societies has coincided with the development of increasingly faster food and the disappearance of the old-fashioned family meal? Developing healthy relationships requires time. This has traditionally been accomplished over the dinner table, where people are forced to slow down and take care of a basic need—nourishment. And in that activity a strange irony is realized. In the careful, thoughtful fulfillment of a basic physiological need, the much higher human need for contentment and self-fulfillment can more easily be attained.

In 1986 Carlo Petrini and his supporters stood in the plaza outside the new McDonald’s and served passersby bowls of penne marinara—a simple dish of noodles in a traditional tomato-based sauce. It was a symbol of the roots of Italian food and culture. It is not elitist, nor expensive, but a dish with which the poorest in Italy could grace their tables. It is also a perfect sign of the simplicity that must brand this movement if it is to achieve its goals. Many people in the Slow movement, regardless of class or economic status, are finding that a simpler, more balanced and more healthful lifestyle can be achieved even in the face of tremendous societal pressure to speed up. It takes effort. It takes a change of values and priorities. But in the end, supporters all agree that it’s well worth it.