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A Preview of Carlo Petrini’s Latest Book: Cibo e libertà (Food and Freedom)

May. 21, 2014

By John Irving, Slow Food Editore

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “gastronomy” as “the practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food.”

Carlo Petrini reckons that, in its thirty-year history, Slow Food has—at first unwittingly, then consciously—reformulated the meaning not only of the word but also of its practical and theoretical implications. He explains how in his impassioned new bookCibo e libertà, to be published this fall in English as Food and Freedom.

“I have tried to reconstruct a journey,” he writes in the prologue, “based on my experience, on experiences acquired and on the encounters and meetings I have had along the way.” Hence a series of sketches of people and places round the world—from Kenya to Turkey, from Brazil to Indonesia, from Germany to the USA—that have somehow helped to shape the Slow Food world view.

Petrini sees his journey as one of liberation and labels its end as “gastronomia liberate”. To the educated Italian ear the term conjures up Gerusalemme liberate, Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, first published in 1528, about the taking of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, generally translated into English as Jerusalem Delivered. The cultural resonance of all this will be lost on readers of Food and Freedom, but the thinking behind it is clear enough.

Petrini’s metaphorical and real journey runs from local to global, in parallel with the various stages of evolution of Slow Food past, present and future. It sets out from the early “eno” and “gastro” days—in the author’s words, a time of “insane folly”—when a group of friends in the small northern Italian town of Bra contrived a variety of schemes to defend quality food, the right to pleasure and conviviality that culminated in the mega Salone del Gusto event in Turin in 1998.

Then comes the “eco” phase in which Slow Food discovered “agrobiodiversity” and pledged to protect traditional foods and primary ingredients, conserving tried-and-tested cultivation and processing methods domestic and wild plant species and animal breeds, most notably by launching the Ark of Taste and its logical offshoot, the Presidia project.

There followed “neo”-gastronomy—its manifesto Petrini’s book Slow Food Nation, its banner the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, its mantra “good, clean and fair”—and the theorization of a new role for the gastronome, no longer a mere arbiter of flavor, trapped in “a very self-referential, elitist, unscholarly reality,” but now an informed “co-producer,” and also, in homage to Jean-Barthelme Brillat-Savarin and his Physiologie du goût, for gastronomy itself as a science, “holistic, interdisciplinary, capable of embracing all the learning but also the ‘being’ behind every food.” Viewed through Petrini’s lens, gastronomy had nothing to lose but its chains and Slow Food has set it free.

Not that the story ends here. In the second part of the book, Petrini moves on from “gastronomia liberate” to posit “ gastronomia per la liberazione,” gastronomy for freedom. It is his contention that the unbinding of gastronomy has released new, previously unimaginable human, biological and cultural energies—in other words, diversity—and that it is now Slow Food’s job to harness them to liberate the world food system and its attendant woes (“inequality, oppression, the damage it wreaks on the environment and people, the scandal of hunger and malnutrition”) once and for all. Hence the movement’s ongoing “socio-political” activism, entrenched in the Terra Madre network of local food communities, its lobbying work with national and national institutions, and its involvement with farming and food organizations round the world.

Petrini’s resounding conclusion is that “Food will free us if it becomes our food once again, in every way extant and imaginable, according to culture and inclination. Because food is freedom.”

Anyone who has heard Carlo Petrini deliver a public speech will recognize the peremptory, oratorial tone of the new book. He doesn’t beat about the bush, he cajoles the reader into submission; he also makes us work hard with his countless references to the minutiae of the Slow Food apparatus (congresses and conferences, boards and commissions). Slow Food insiders—or people who have already read Petrini’s previous books, Slow Food Nation and Terra Madre—will certainly be at an advantage over laypeople with no prior knowledge of the movement when it comes to penetrating and appreciating his arguments to the full. American readers in general may also find the many pages dedicated to the obscure inner workings of the European Union hard to fathom, but all will find memorable those in which Petrini connects his personal escapades—the search for a Piedmontese priest “lost” in the Amazon jungle, a firsthand account of the demonstrations in Taksim Square in Istanbul last year, a day spent picking cabbages on a farm near Berlin—to the development of his “food liberation” project.

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