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Snobs or Saviors? Slow Food Must First Save Itself

Sep. 15, 2007

Renee Ciulla, an organic farmer in Montana, has written an interesting and well researched piece on NewFarm.org on the Slow Food Movement, inspired in part by her trip to see founder Carlo Petrini speak in San Francisco on the topic of his book, Slow Food Nation. It does a fine job of covering the history and current mission of the Movement:

The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 by an enraged Carlo Petrini after McDonalds attempted to open a franchise in Rome. With more than 80,000 members in 50 countries, the movement has secured a firm place in the world. Slow Food helps redefine people as “co-producers” rather than “consumers,” showing how the choices about what we eat give us a role in the food system and puts us side-by-side with farmers in many ways.

Slow Food’s international role has grown far beyond the pursuit of great taste and into the realm of making ours a better world, starting at home. Slow Food USA, founded in 2000, has been both revered and attacked by farmers and the general public. Consider this piece an invitation to join me as I delve into various views regarding Slow Food USA’s effectiveness in connecting to small-scale farmers and the various convivia representing their local regions. As an American organic farmer and Slow Food (SF) member, I represent both sides equally with hopes of generating healthy discussion on the topic.

And delve she does, but only skimming the surface of what I consider to be the most important single issue facing the Movement in the USA:

Szanto believes the major flaw of Slow Food is ironically its great strength: its universally accessible brand with access for producers, processors, consumers, community organizers and activists, alike. Szanto views these many entry points as necessary for Slow Food, which believes in using cross-disciplinary action to bring about change; people want to be aware of food’s taste, history, environmental impact, anthropological significance, production techniques, economics and nutritional benefits, he said. "You would also want people in places with wildly different food cultures to connect to a common cause and direction, so it does have to have a pretty wide and loose brand. That means at the local level, Slow Food looks different from place to place as convivia approach food through taste education, producer concerns or fancy food."

and…

Szanto emphasized that it would be wrong to take the Italian Slow Food model and force-fit it onto the U.S. “One of the problems with food culture in the U.S.—aside from separate and simultaneous overemphasis on nutrition and convenience—is the focus on fancy food and food elitism. Good food becomes an aspect of consumerism, rather than about environmentalism, tradition or social justice. We are, after all, a highly consumerist society, and until that changes, food will remain a subset of that culture.” There are really two Slow Food movements operating in the U.S., Szanto offered in wrapping up our conversation: the national leadership with its overarching culture, and the collectivized organization embodying a mosaic of cultures.

Szanto has a point. But the real issue is in that perception of elitism, an image almost impossible to shed in our culture once you are tagged with it. Sow Food’s been tagged and it truly pins my ears back when I hear it because it simply isn’t true. It is, however, easy to understand why people think it may be true, that we are just a bunch of well-heeled yuppies stuffing our craws with foie gras, even though what we are truly about is genuine salt-of-the-earth stuff, and not just figuratively. Our purpose in celebrating all these wonderful, unique (and yes often "gourmet") foods is not a way for us to demonstrate some ill-conceived moral superiority, as BR Myers tried somewhat whiningly to assert in his Atlantic Monthly piece this month, but rather it is our attempt to preserve the histories, traditions and cultures that make each of us who we are.

"Patriotism," Lin Yu Tang once said, is “love of the foods we ate as children.” Looked at on a macro-level, then love of humanity and love of the earth is love of the foods that make people distinct. Protecting that food, whether it is fois gras and caviar or bread and salt, is not an act of elitism but instead of human love. As such it would be ridiculous not to also revel in the pleasures the food offers because what is the point of love if it does not also bring joy? And it is in that reveling that some see the tinge of elitism, even gluttony. But Thoreau said "he who distinguishes the true savor of his food cannot be a glutton. He who does not, cannot be otherwise."

Petrini said it very well on his recent US tour. "A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

I hope that Slow Food Nation, the event, will go a long way toward dispelling these misconception. It had better.

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