Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the goodest, cleanest, and fairest of them all?

In case you haven’t been following the comments section of Mental Masala’s and my post today about Slow Food leader Carlo Petrini’s lecture in San Francisco, there’s quite a kerfuffle over the part in his new book in which he visits San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I was able to read the entire section, and his depiction is indeed inflammatory. I’ve excerpted it after the jump below should you want to check it out first.

I am trying to give Petrini the benefit of the doubt, not being able to read it in the original Italian and also not knowing Petrini’s point of view quite well enough to ascertain if what sounds like insults are really neutral statements, coming from him. However, I do think Slow Food’s U.S. team should have tread more carefully when publishing this section, as it deals with some of the same divisive issues of class and access to good food perhaps even more clumsily than I did in a recent post about my food-buying habits.

(Full disclosure: Last month I accepted an informal invitation to join the leadership team of the Slow Food Berkeley “convivium.” You may assume that makes me a fancy-pants apologist, but I accepted (a) because I believe in the mission and (b) because they offered to help with the meat CSA I’ve been laboring to get going. But I admit I would also basically pour sulfuric acid on my toes, or perhaps my husband’s, to avoid getting banned from Slow Food Nation next May in San Francisco — and if I am, believe me, I will ninja my way in somehow.)

For those of you outside California, the Ferry Plaza farmers market is basically the St. Peter’s Cathedral of the local, organic food movement, and the farmers who sell their wares at it are our clergy. So for the Pope to visit it, even as Bishop Alice Waters’s guest, and look around and describe it as a “boutique” that serves a clientele “whose social status was pretty clear: either wealthy or very wealthy” and then go on to censure an olive farmer for his monocultural ways and a young hippie farmer for exacting such extortionate prices for his squash that he can spend most of his time surfing is just…. blasphemous. No culture likes outsiders to come in and size it up critically in a glance, and Petrini getting most of his facts wrong just adds insult to injury.

Here’s Napa Valley bean farmer and Slow Food delegate Steve Sando, whose posts are how I first heard of Petrini’s characterization:

There are a number of disturbing suggestions and some flat-out lies. The easiest finger to point is at price. Yes, the price of food at Ferry Plaza, both in the shops and at the farmers market can be high. You can spend over $3 for a single peach. You can also find bunches of spring onions for 39 cents, juicy oranges for 99 cents a pound and lettuce mix for less than five dollars a pound, all comparable to an average grocery store. Petrini full well knows that “regular” prices are artificially low and I would say it’s downright irresponsible to bring up price without mentioning what it takes to bring a 69 cent head of romaine to a grocery store.

Sando has a lot more points to make, including that the supposed suited-up olive farmer is invented and that the bearded surfer-farmer is Joe Shirmer of Dirty Girl Produce, a hardworking friend of his who does not deserve to be called an extortionate dilettante. He also apparently said as much to Petrini, which did not go over well.

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which manages the Ferry Plaza market, canceled Petrini’s May 12 appearance there to sign his book. (The Book Passage entry for the event has been deleted, but still exists on Google’s cache.) A meeting between the farmers and Petrini was called for Saturday, which Sando said on his blog that he will report on more fully tomorrow.

This might seem like a tempest in a Fair Trade teacup to some — after all, no one’s disputing that the Ferry Plaza is the most expensive of the markets around here, and Petrini’s main point, that the organic movement is in danger of being co-opted by operations that follow only the bare minimum in standards, is also commonly accepted around here. Reading the excerpt a third time, I notice more signs that Petrini knows full well that he’s dissing the church:

I do not like to find fault with people—my friends of that morning—who sell products that are so naturally good. But perhaps it is better to have doubts. Reality is complex and resists labels. There is a risk that technocratic thought, when it is deeply rooted, may shape and influence even those tendencies that are opposed to the system, thereby creating other anomalies.

My interpretation is that what seems to disgust him the most is the unfettered display of capitalism, the blatant free-market success of the Ferry Plaza farmers market. He offers Brazil as an example of how “sustainability can be achieved through public intervention, through politics,” citing how in those regions where the Workers’ Party is in control, “all food served in public cafeterias must by law be organic and must be produced by small local producers at fair but accessible prices.”

There are better ways to convert this fast-food nation into a Slow Food one than by a socialist coup. One would be by recognizing that for all its much-hyped growth, the organic sector represents just 3 percent of all food and beverage sales in this country. (From Meat & Poultry, which is citing preliminary results from the Organic Trade Association’s 2007 Manufacturer Survey that report U.S. organic food sales totaled nearly $17 billion in 2006, up 22% from 2006.) That’s nothing, people. We need to stop accusing each other of being elitist and concentrate on increasing the numbers of sustainable U.S. farmers (by enabling them to not just cover their costs, but make a living, and their workers too), by supporting our local farmers, by helping to get fresh food into urban areas that have no access to it, by teaching young people how to grow and cook (and think critically about food advertising), and any number of additional urgently needed missions.

We have so much to do. We need everyone who cares about any aspect of this mission — including full-quiver fundamentalist Christians, longtime back-to-the-landers, concerned soccer moms, globe-trotting eco-gastronomes whose organizations have hefty membership fees, environmentalists, vegan animal-rights warriors — to pull a chair up to the table and start passing the salad, dammit. Let’s save the finger-pointing as to who doesn’t deserve the golden halo of “good, clean, and fair” for when real food hits at least the 10 percent milestone, shall we?

And now the excerpt, so you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth getting worked up over:

From “Slow Food Nation” by Carlo Petrini (Copyright 2007 Rizzoli Books):

Morning. The cool morning began quite early: if you are going to the market, it is best to be ready by seven o’clock at the latest. The sun was not yet warm enough when, in the company of my chef friend Alice Waters, I entered an elegantly refurbished area of the docks; pretty little coffee shops were serving warm mugs of excellent organic fairtrade coffee; sumptuous bakeries were putting out all sorts of good things, spreading the fragrant aroma of some wonderful kinds of bread. Oil and wine producers were offering samples in marquees, while hundreds of open-air stalls were selling excellent products: fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, sausages, and even flowers—fresh, healthy-looking food, all carefully marked organic.

One could have easily spent a fortune there. The prices were astronomical, twice or even three times as high as those of “conventional” products. But how hard it is to produce things so well, and what costs are involved in obtaining certification! I am convinced that the farmers’ intelligent, productive efforts deserve to be paid for generously, so I was not too scandalized by the prices, even though they were those of a boutique. Yes, a boutique: for I soon realized I was in an extremely exclusive place (bear in mind that this is one of the oldest and most important farmers’ markets in town, la crème de la crème). The amiable ex-hippies and young dropouts-turned-farmers greeted their customers with a smile and offered generous samples of their products to a clientele whose social status was pretty clear: either wealthy or very wealthy.

Alice Waters introduced me to dozens of farmers: they were all well-to-do college graduates, former employees of Silicon Valley, many of them young. Meanwhile, their customers, most of whom seemed to be actresses, went home clutching their peppers, squashes, and apples, showing them off like jewels, status symbols. Two of the producers in particular struck me: a young man with a long beard and a man who was selling oil. The former, with long hair and a plaid flannel shirt, held his lovely little blond-haired daughter in his arms and told me, in a conspiratorial tone, that he had to drive two hundred miles to come and sell in that market: he charged incredibly high prices for his squashes, it was “a cinch,” and in just two monthly visits he could earn more than enough to maintain his family and spend hours surfing on the beach.

The latter, who wore a tie, extolled the beauties of his farm: it consisted of hundreds of hectares of olive trees, stretching as far as the eye could see, and nothing else. While I was tasting his excellent organic oil on a slice of bread which reminded me of Tuscan bread—absolutely delicious—I was thinking of what he must have uprooted and cleared away in order to grow all those plants, each one of them impeccably organic.

Afternoon. In the early afternoon, with those odors and aromas and the faces of the marvelous farmers’ market still in my head, I was sweating in a taxi (it lacked the usually ubiquitous American air-conditioning) on the way to Berkeley for my appointment with Miguel Altieri. The professor, an entomologist, teaches agroecology at the university. He spends six months a year in California and the other six elsewhere in the world, especially in South America, where he carries out fieldwork and projects of sustainable, family-based, organic farming. He is a champion of biodiversity, with his theory that agricultural systems, like all ecosystems, ought to have all the necessary capacities for self-regulation, without the intervention of external factors such as pesticides and fertilizers. According to Altieri, the existing biodiversity—on which farmers’ knowledge has been molded for thousands of years—and local people’s know-how are the only basis for developing agricultural systems that are sufficiently productive and respectful of cultural diversity all around the world. By blending the local farmers’ knowledge with the discoveries of “mainstream” science, it is possible to create a clean and productive agriculture which will foster human well-being while respecting nature.

I walked across the beautiful Berkeley campus under a warm, dazzling sun (green California gets it even in the fall) and reached Altieri’s small office. I listened spellbound for over an hour to his theories, conversing in Spanish (he is Chilean) and relishing his militant passion and the unmistakable honesty of this man who works and struggles for a better world. Biodiversity before all else: this is the only secret behind sustainable development. His aversion to the use of chemical substances in agriculture is clear, absolute, and motivated. He proposes alternative methods with such utter conviction that in South America he is considered a luminary and is respected by universities, research centers, NGOs, and governments.

In his opinion, the main task is “to promote sustainable agriculture; a development program which is socially equitable, environmentally healthy, economically affordable, and culturally sensitive.”

I asked him what he thought of organic farming and its rapid expansion in California, wanting to test his agroecological “extremism.” He replied:

There are many cases of organic farming that are not sustainable, because they create a vast monoculture, one that relies on the use of integrated pesticides which greatly reduce the surrounding biodiversity: vast stretches of vineyards in Chile and in Italy, huge plantations of vegetables in California, hectares and hectares of olive groves in Spain.

Olive groves . . . I thought of the man I had met that morning. I remembered the faces of my wine-producer friends in southern Piedmont, who, since Barolo sells well, have in the space of a few years planted vines everywhere, even in ditches, removing woodland and fields, indeed most of the surrounding biodiversity.

Altieri continued:

And in addition to the environmental question, there is also a socioeconomic one: nowadays in California there is a lot of organic agriculture which is unsustainable because, although it has a limited environmental impact, it exists at the expense of people who are paid very little, just as in conventional agriculture. Hosts of Mexican immigrants exploited like slaves, with no rights and earning a pittance. It is not fair, because the organic product is sold at a much higher price than the product of conventional farming. And only the very rich can afford it, the fruits of this work; the minorities don’t eat organic food in the United States.

I had seen confirmation of this a few hours earlier, and indeed, as Altieri flowed on:

In California, 2 percent of organic producers make percent of the total amount produced by the industry in this sector; I use the term “industry” advisedly: we are facing the same problems as conventional agriculture. The concentration of production, the exploitation of the work of ethnic minorities, monocultures, the reduction of biodiversity, and prices determined by a free market which is not sustainable. Social sustainability can be achieved through public intervention, through politics: in Brazil, in those regions where the Workers’ Party con-trols the local government, all food served in public cafeterias must by law be organic and must be produced by small local producers at fair but accessible prices.

Agroecology has a scientific basis, but it also has profound political implications, because it is badly in need of public intervention: before an agroecological approach can be established in Latin America, there must be agrarian reform and public intervention in the market to protect small farmers or to guarantee fair prices for producers and consumers. All these factors are crucial, and they affect both science and politics.

Evening. On my way back to town, I pondered those words and the market I had visited. Organic farming is undoubtedly a very good thing; it is an excellent alternative to agroindustry, and I do not like to find fault with people—my friends of that morning—who sell products that are so naturally good. But perhaps it is better to have doubts. Reality is complex and resists labels. There is a risk that technocratic thought, when it is deeply rooted, may shape and influence even those tendencies that are opposed to the system, thereby creating other anomalies. As the outskirts of town flashed by outside the window of the taxi, chains of fast-food joints succeeded one another on almost every block. They were all crowded with ordinary people, very different people from the customers I had seen at the farmers’ market.

In the evening I returned to Berkeley, and went to Chez Panisse, the restaurant owned by my friend Alice Waters, where I had a memorable dinner based on raw materials so fresh you could almost taste the life that had animated the vegetables only a few hours earlier. They served me the best agnolotti I have ever eaten. At Berkeley! Green California . . . vive la contradiction!

31 Responsesto “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the goodest, cleanest, and fairest of them all?”

  1. deliberately says:

    Thanks for the great summary post. I’ll be citing you and letting my visitors link through Ethicurean rather than reinvent the wheel.

  2. While he may have mischaracterized individual farmers, he certainly did NOT mischaracterize the ferry building farmers’ market, it’s elitism and outrageous prices (far higher than any other farmers’ market in the area). Class and economic justice seem to be missing from most American analyses of sustainable agriculture, organics and local food.

    His point about monoculture is interesting. I wonder what the alternative really looks like.

  3. Sam Fromartz says:

    After his rant, he repairs to Chez Panisse for a meal. The ironies here are as delicious as the agnolotti he was eating.

  4. Steve Sando says:

    Thanks for your post about all this. Four farmers who all went to one or both Terra Madre conferences met with Petrini and I was going to post about the meeting but it’s been hard to seperate my personal feelings about him and write somewhat clearly. He showed none of the charisma he is famous for on stage, I can say that much. And he has a very short fuse.
    If we want to talk about elistism, how about having Alice Waters give you a guided tour of her friends at the farmers market? And then making a judgement about the entire place based on one visit? I’ve seen Alice Waters once in all the years I’ve been there and that was at the Prather Ranch meat counter, inside, not at the farmers market.
    There are problems with ferry plaza, and the US, but Petrini had a bias going in and he’s not the person to be leading us out of our woes.
    i don’t give up hope on Slow Food. I think people should join their local groups and stand up to New York and Italy. Make Slow Food as local as your tomato.

  5. Bruce says:

    God, here we go again with the “elitism” argument at the Ferry Building.

    Spare me, will you – or start naming names.

    Just who, exactly, are the elitists at the Ferry Building Farmers Market? The farmers? Which ones (nice to see you’ve already bought into Petrini’s argument)? The customers? Please tell me which ones are the elitists so I can start hanging out with them (apparently, I’ve been a shmuck for putting cold hard cash into the pockets of hard working farmers).

    The prices? While they are no doubt higher than other farmers markets, I’d argue that they are closer to what the real cost of food should be. There is an entire segment of the population in this country that recieves a pittance of a salary for the work they do growing and harvesting the food we eat. If they were to receive a real wage, the price of food would skyrocket and only the “wealthy” or “very wealthy” would be able to afford it. Personally, I think farmers should charge as much as the market will bear, and apparently that market exists at the Ferry Building. More power to them.

  6. Venusia says:

    I find his reaction ironic. In my area, Slow Food stands for 100$ tasting menus (+wine) at starred restaurants with visiting guest chefs. I had expected that it would be about learning to forage for mushrooms etc., and discovering small local artisanal producers, but no, it’s more about enjoying a leisurely and expensive meal.

  7. orgtheory says:

    Well, we hardly have to look at the specifics of his argument when we can easily indict his sensibilities based on this:

    “I walked across the beautiful Berkeley campus”


  8. DairyQueen says:

    There’s no shortage of evidence that Slow Food appeals primarily to an well-off, well-fed, monocultural audience. (I noticed there were all of two nonwhite people in the packed hall for Petrini’s SF talk, and about as many under 30.) But let’s not turn ourselves into a “circular firing squad,” as Sam Fromartz heads his post at Chews Wise.

    I think the real issue here is that Petrini has decided that the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market’s prices are not “fair” because they are not accessible to everyone. This bothers me for two reasons. “Fair” is intimately linked with the true cost of food, and Bay Area farmers have among the highest costs around. I seriously doubt any of them is making above the median hourly wage, if that. “Fair” should also be appropriate to the actual customer base: if all fresh local produce cost as much as the best “jewel-like” specimens available at the FPFM, then it would indeed be accessible to only a few (the ones who already shop there). But this is not the case.

    To me, Petrini is guilty of the same thinking that got us into this mess, that there is some absolute ideal price target for fresh food. There are vast differences from producer to producer in fixed costs, operation size, produce quality, sustainability, distance, etc. If we focus on improving those things, then this food will rapidly become more affordable to everyone. Is the goal for everyone to be able to shop at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market or (don’t kill me) Whole Foods? Or is it for more people to be able to buy, barter, or grow fresh produce in their own neighborhood yards, markets, shops, and grocery stores?

    P.S. Orgtheory — you don’t think the Berkeley campus is beautiful? I do…but perhaps I’m biased because the Potato Non Grata and I got married under the Campanile.

  9. Gregory Emerson says:

    Petreni’s comments reveal a profound disconnect with American politics, culture, and economics. We cannot simply import the Slow Food model from Europe. We are not a nation of Socialists, our food system is much more diseased than Italy’s ever was, and our government is far too supportive of factory farming for us to expect change to come from above. American Slow Food must be a home grown movement of individuals and businesses, rooted in capitalism, and determined to challenge popularly held beliefs about what food is and how much food should cost.

    Italian food production ten years ago is where American food production should strive to be in ten years. We don’t have the luxury to prioritize permaculture, or dismiss organic farmers for monocropping. Sustainable, integrated, small scale food production is an ideal, but for now “industrial organics” are the key to a healthy food system. Any movement away from chemical fertilizers and poisons, CAFOs, and GMO crops is a positive good. If we are not yet ready to take the full journey to permaculture, (and the additional labor, investment, and higher food costs it will entail), let us at least take baby steps away from a toxic food system.

    Petreni’s criticism of the high price of organic foods and the low wages paid to agricultural workers is contradictory. A large part of the “high price” of organics is reflected in fair wages paid to workers. Take the example of Swanton berry farm: they may charge $4 for a basket of strawberries, but all of their workers earn union wages, and they raise their growing beds high enough to minimize repetitive stress injuries. Ferry Building prices are high, because they reflect fair wages and good working conditions for many of the farm workers. You cannot have low food prices and good worker conditions without significant government subsidy, and our government has no interest in subsidizing organic food production.

    Petreni’s conclusion is that our government should fix everything: fund organic growers, ensure good worker wages, guarantee low prices for organic foods, and demand large-scale organic food distribution. It worked in Italy, so it should work in the States. Clearly, Petreni is completely ignorant of US food policy. His is a country where the government forces McDonald’s to close. Ours is a country where we have to wage war just to get fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias; where organic dairy farmers are required to state on their packaging that rBGH has no impact on human health and dairy quality; and where the fundamental agricultural priority is to maximize caloric production per acre, with no consideration to resource consumption, pollution, or nutritional value. Our government is not going to save our food system, we must save our food system from our government. For now, industrial organics is the most realistic option for large-scale salvation.

    An excellent counterpoint to Petreni’s piece is John Mackey’s excellent “Conscious Capitalism: Creating a New Paradigm for Business” (linked here: http://www.wholefoods.com/blogs/jm/archives/2006/11/conscious_capit.html). Mackey, an unabashed Libertarian, explains how the capitalist, for-profit business model can be the most effective, sustainable model to accomplish good work within the United States. The article is lengthy, but worth reading in full. Mackey may have his critics, but no single person has done more to increase certified organic acreage and animal welfare standards within the United States. Mackey’s pro-market opinions may seem like heresy to a Socialist like Petreni, but the success of Whole Foods demonstrates that Mackey is right-on.

    Love the Blog, Dairy Queen, keep up the good work!

  10. faustianbargain says:

    a question: why cannot the state of american agriculture and food be changed by legislation. after all, it is at this sorry state because of lobbies and legislation. reversing the damage done doesnt make the country ‘socialist’, does it?

    ideas can spread and infect others only if the fecundity factor is high. when good food is not available to all(and i dont mean ‘cheap’ food), how can it become part of the wider society?

  11. Sarah says:

    Whoa guys.
    Petreni raises a few good points. He says the food tastes great. He is asking you to think not have a socialist revolution. He is comparing and contrasting two systems not saying one is right and one is wrong.
    What is wrong with protraying a farmer who loves to surf? My family works to ski. That doesn’t mean our work is not valuble, good for the enviroment and socially progressive.
    I am looking forward to visiting the market one day.
    Love the blog

  12. Steve Sando says:

    Sarah, his whole chapter has a condescending tone to it. If you read about the surfer, he’s suggesting he is gouging the customers for his squash and can now go surfing the rest of the time. I’m still waiting for a squash that would be worth growing in order to make a profit!

    I’ve posted my response to our meeting on my blog ()
    and you can take it or leave it.

    I think in general, this has raised some great points on both sides and in a weird, wild way I need to thank Petrini!

  13. Very interesting post, raising so many issues of real importance. Most of your readers, I imagine, are not familiar with Petrini’s status here in Italy. Let’s just say that papal infallibility is just part of it. Anyway, one of the big daily papers here just snatched him from one of the others. Probably a massive signing fee, but that’s besides the point.) To celebrate, they gave him front page space to sound off, without identifying him as anything to do with Slow Food. He wrote a hymn to Slow Food. And he got his facts (about genebanks and databases) completely and utterly wrong. When this was pointed out to the paper concerned (alas the article is not on the web) it refused to acknowledge the error in any way. And neither the great Petrini nor any of his acolytes have replied to emails pointing out — much more politely than this — that he might be misinformed and offering to set him straight.

    He may mean well. So does the real Pope. Both are pretenders.

  14. antony says:

    After hearing about the recent dustup between Carlo Petrini’s passage in his new book and the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, I decided to ask a few of my restaurant owner friends and local food critics their take on the issue. They all agreed with Carlo about his description of the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, saying maybe he overstated it a bit. They went on to explain how the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market has become a tourist destination, much like Fisherman’s Wharf. Tourist do not buy bags of veggies, but are only looking for a coffee and sandwich. New stalls at the market have gone to “prepared food” vendors, which attracts tourists. Instead of catering to chefs, by having open loading areas, these areas are now packed with expresso coffee makers and a roasted chicken truck.

    The regular farmers can not make money with tourists and they are leaving the farmer’s market. “Small Potatoes has left for this reason, as well as most recently, the cornerstone of the market, Andy Griffin from Mariquita Farm. (you can read his farmer’s market swan song here —> http://www.mariquita.com/Farmers%20Market/whatwerebringing.html ) Their revenue has steadily gone down since the market moved from Green Street a few years ago.

    So Carlo has ruffled a few feathers with his new book (Slow Food Nation – Why our food should be Good, Clean and Fair), but remember he started the first University of Gastronomic Science and put together an artisan food trade show in Turin last October that drew 150,000 attendees, not to mention Terra Madre. Very few people has done so much for farmers and artisan food producers.

  15. Steve Sando says:

    Anthony has the exact same post on Chowhound with same erroneous “facts”. There is a lot of reserved parking for chefs, there are ZERO new prepared food vendors and if you want, I’ll ask Andy or Julia at Mariquita to post here why they left. I don’t think it’s cricket for you to speaking for them. Their business is thriving and if the model doesn’t have to include markets, trust me, that’s great. It can be thrilling but it’s a real burn out. How many years have they done it?
    A lot of us are twiddling our thumbs in the mornings. Get there before or 10 or even 11 and you should be fine. The tourists are a drag but what is supposed to be done about that?
    Salone del Gusto is great and the 1st terra madre was wonderful. They’ve done a lot of good. Which doesn’t give them a free ticket to do what they want or act like asswipes.
    I met the local “governor” Carmen at the Taste3 event in Napa as this was all brewing and I said, fair or not, Slow has a reputation of being elitist and arrogant and he leaned in to me and said, “We are the biggest organization of our kind in the world.” That’s lovely. I’d read a Dale Carnegie book before I did anything else if I were in their shoes.
    But Anthony, since this is a real issue for you, please contact me or have your restaurant friends contact me and I guarantee I will find them parking.

  16. MFKsWolf says:

    If Carlo’s book has upset some people at Ferry Plaza and around the bay area, I say “good.”

    The Slow Food Movement has, since its inception, suffered from a perception of elitism. This is a perception it often brought upon itself admittedly, but it derived mostly from the large numbers of well-to-do who were attracted to membership in an organization that said that pleasure is not evil.

    Two Terra Madre events have gone a long way toward eliminating this view of Slow Food, as has the Foundation for Biodiversity. If Slow Food Nation, both the book and the event, are going to be worth anything, they should be nails in the coffin of the ideas that Slow Food is for the rich, that organic is for those who can afford it, and that local food is a status symbol.

    Are there real, dedicated, artisinal farmers at Ferry Plaza? Of course there are. But Carlo’s point, however harshly stated, is quite true in that Ferry Plaza, and some other big city markets around the country have become harbors for the see-and-be-seen set while farmers there (somewhat understandably) have raised their prices based on the simple principle of “what the market will bear.”

    Carlo’s dream when he and all those others protested the McDonald’s at the Piazza di Spagna 20 years ago was not to make the world safe for caviar and foie gras. The idea has always been to preserve, protect and defend the flavors and traditions that make each culture unique and prescious. These are not the exclusive domain of the weathy, and to the extent that a market that once catered local, sustainable food to everyone has become an exclusive boutique for the nuovuea riche, I say Bravo Carlo for calling them on it.

    All due apologies to those whe were offended, but hopefully they were awakened as well.

  17. Steve Sando says:

    How elite is it to charge $150 to watch Carlo Petrini eat a hamburger? Or after a day of dishing and dogging the farmers of ferry plaza to retire to Berkeley and enjoy dinner at Chez Panisse with your dear pal Alice Waters? The last Slow event held here in Napa was at the Silverado Country Club. I don’t think you should be playing the “Slow as salt of the earth” card.
    No one is discounting the good work that Petrini and SF have done over the years. But it doesn’t mean they didn’t screw up this time or are above criticism.
    Discuss the insane price of food (both high and low) is what most food producers would love, but a real conversation, not a pretend one with pretend examples and pretend farmers.

  18. MFKsWolf says:


    The event you refer to as “$150 to watch Carlo Petrini eat a hamburger” was a fundraiser. Slow Food is a 501(c)3 educational organization and what it does costs money. Transporting, housing and feeding 6000 TM delegates in Turin is not cheap. The Salone is not cheap. The Foundation and the University do important, groundbreaking, expensive work. The Slow Food Nation event will cost millions. There is nothing elitist or wrong with raising money for a registered charity.

    Alice Waters is the Vice President of Slow Food and was Carlo’s host in the Bay Area. It would have been silly (not to mention rude) for him not to eat at Chez Panisse, a restaurant you may call elitist if you wish, but it is a pillar of the sustainable cuisine movement – a movement born in large part through the efforts of people like Alice Waters.

    When you say “No one is discounting the good work that Petrini and SF have done over the years,” I think you are wrong. Hopefully you are not discounting it, but many people are. And no, I don’t believe Slow Food is above criticism at all, but neither is it beneath the members of the FPFM to accept reproachment when it is earnestly offered (which it was).

    Carlo was merely trying to point out the difficulties, hurdles and challenges that exist even in the finest of markets, much the same way Michael Pollan showed both the opportunities and drawbacks of sustainability in “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” That led to a spirited but civil public debate between Pollan and John Mackey, which is what should have happened here. But instead the people at CUESA overreacted, and the whole thing spun out of everyone’s control. A real shame. I hope reconciliation is close at hand.

  19. Bruce says:


    I’m not their spokesman by any means, but I hardly think that the folks at CUESA overreacted. I don’t see how they could have sponsored a book signing by Carlo Petrini after what he had written in regards to their market. The farmers that Petrini wrote about had an understandably visceral reaction, and I don’t think they would have been too happy either, to see Petrini peddling a book in which they were disparaged.

    I also don’t think you can compare Pollan’s debate with Mackey to FPFM/Petrini disagreement. Pollan didn’t fabricate an entire scenario to make his points. He also had the moxie to participate in an email dialogue with Mackey (via the web), as well as a public conversation in front of thousands of people (live and via webcast). So far, the only word from Slow Food in regards to this whole affair has been from USA Slow Food director (and Petrini translator) Erika Lesser, who in the SF Chronicle article, is quoted as saying “It’s definitely awkward.” Come on, that’s it?

    If, as you say, Petrini was trying to point out the difficulties, hurdles and challenges that exist in the finest farmers markets, he failed miserably (and so did his editors and everybody else at Slow Food USA who previewed the book), and he should just own up to the fact.

    This story is getting plenty of (one-sided) play on numerous blogs, discussion boards, and in the mainstream media. What I don’t understand is Slow Food’s reluctance to communicate with the large number of people who are so obviously upset. It’s a tactic that just reinforces the standard “Slow Food is elitist” argument, which I assume they would love to dispel.

    I’m right on that point, aren’t I?

  20. Steve Sando says:

    Just for the record, MFKsWolf says: “And no, I don’t believe Slow Food is above criticism at all, but neither is it beneath the members of the FPFM to accept reproachment when it is earnestly offered (which it was).”
    I’m not sure what you mean by reproachment. CUESA had nothing to aplogize for and Slow never did apologize. I was there. All Slow had to do was say, “Oops! We screwed up. We’re so sorry.” And this would have passed and reporters would never have started calling me. It still hasn’t happened. The formal apology, sent to me **today** by Lesser by the way, was “sorry that you were upset”, not that Slow made a mistake. The in-person “apology” from Petrini was even less and he seemed to want me to apologize to him for not accepting his made up stories and misinformaton as a good thing.

    And there are lots of fundraisers that cost less and reach more. It’s a decison you make. Fine. Have your parties at a country club but don’t be throwing stones at the very people you say you’re trying to inspire.

    I wasn’t discounting the good that Slow has done but seeing how you guys have handled this makes me really question your management skills. This all should never have been and could have been avoided. And that’s with friends. I can’t imagine your grace under fire with enemies.

  21. DairyQueen says:

    I’m still thinking about Petrini’s comments, wondering why they bug me so much. Steve has a comment on his own blog that I think nails what’s at stake here.

    My goal is to get people to eat real food, too. You probably can imagine how hard it is to get an average person to understand what goes into growing a tomato or a zucchini. Can you imagine how difficult it is to get them to cook dried beans? And then to pay for them on top of that? There’s a large portion of the population that is dipping their toes into these waters and to have someone like Petrini come along and confirm their suspicions that they may be getting ripped off, while also making fun of them, is beyond irresponsible.

    That’s it. That’s the subtext of all this “Ferry Plaza is elitist” discussion — it’s people who are for the most part willing to pay more than the grocery store, but who suspect they’re being taken advantage of. Which is not the same thing as discussing making real food, slow food, or good, clean, and fair food affordable and accessible for all.

    Also, Gregory’s comment above is spot on. (Nice to hear from you again, btw. Had a White Marble Farms pork chop lately?) We can pressure our government to support systems and practices that encourage sustainable agriculture, but anyone who thinks that the USDA/FDA will ever decree that all food served in public schools must by law be “organic and must be produced by small local producers at fair but accessible prices” as Petrini says Brazil’s public cafeterias is — is smoking some probably high-priced organically grown dope. Do we want the government to act like Wal-Mart, setting impractical price targets and driving people out of the industry who can’t meet them?

    No. We have room for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, for the Temescal market in Oakland, for Whole Foods as well as Berkeley Bowl, for Rainbow Grocery and CSAs and a whole range of options. And if you think you’re getting ripped off, try asking the farmer why the food is “so expensive.” They might be happy to explain.

  22. Ihop says:

    I’m a newbie here, but I just wanted to note that the Farmers Market — in all its elitism! — accepts food stamps. And I have used them there, when I was serving as an Americorps member and receiving a monthly living allowance that, for my full-time work, was below the California minimum wage.

    Now, which category would that put me in – “wealthy” or “very wealthy”?

  23. sam says:

    I just wanted to let Gregory Emerson know that Swanton are selling 3 punnets for $6 at the Ferry Plaza for the last couple of weeks and they taste really good. Really really good.

  24. MFKsWolf says:


    You said “I don’t see how they could have sponsored a book signing by Carlo Petrini after what he had written in regards to their market.” I see that as a fault on the part of both CUESA and SFUSA. Both parties, regardless of how accurate and/or inflamatory his writings were, should have seen this coming and nipped it in the bud BEFORE the event, not during or after.

    IS the olive oil man in the suit fabricated? I’d ask both Petrini and Sardo to prove it, one way or the other. Beyond that, I think the debate could indeed be one like Pollan/Mackey, if folks would let it.

    Then you submitted:

    “If, as you say, Petrini was trying to point out the difficulties, hurdles and challenges that exist in the finest farmers markets, he failed miserably (and so did his editors and everybody else at Slow Food USA who previewed the book), and he should just own up to the fact.”

    You feel he failed. I do not, having read the entire book and not simply the 5 offending sentences. Though I will heartily admit that reading his book is difficult, since like his preceding books, it is wordy, philosophical, manifesto-like, and translates poorly.


    You think that Carlo should apologize for having an opinion different from yours. He’s not going to do that. He will (and has) apologized for offending you, as that was clearly not his intent (after all, why would it be? We’re all on the same mission).

    The one place where you and I agree is that this could have been avoided. That no one (SFUSA, CUESA, no one) saw this coming is beyond me.

  25. Thor Thorson says:

    The exchanges above have been illuminating and most informative – all contributing different facets to a complicated discussion triggered by a complicated man – Carlo Petrini.
    Mr. Petrini made a mistake to use the FPFM as a specific demonstration object for his broader thinking about possible drawbacks associated with such positive developments as organic farming and sustainable agriculture. For this, he should apologize without equivocation even if some of his observations are valid in a larger context. His critique of the FPFM reveals, as one contributor above pointed out, a lack of detailed knowledge about specific economic, political, and social conditions faced by California farmers (and US farmers in general). But Petrini is not one to sweat details – he thinks in broad, often visionary ways that are frequently startling and astounding in their ambitious scope – yet many of his ideas (initially derided) have become realities and, more importantly, entered into broader transnational discussions.
    I hope that Slow Food USA and Petrini will find ways to convey their sincere apologies to the FPFM and its farmers and that both parties will realize that they are on the same side of a hopeful development in agriculture. That insight should overcome the unfortunate comments made by Petrini and the hurt feelings of FPDM.

  26. Steve Sando says:

    “You think that Carlo should apologize for having an opinion different from yours. He’s not going to do that. He will (and has) apologized for offending you, as that was clearly not his intent (after all, why would it be? We’re all on the same mission).”

    You can say this until you are blue in the face and I will come back with the facts. The stories he wrote about are not true. The customers, the farmers, even the number of tents- it’s all made up so he can prove a point. At our expense. That’s why he owes us an apology. In general, I probably share more opinions than not with him. And if he weren’t so arrogant (and remember, I was in the room with him) I be happy to tell him about the actual problems with this particular market.

  27. Bix says:

    (New here, love your blog!)

    I agree with commenter No.10 up there, faustianbargain.

    Whether it is elitist or not for those with the means to support a local&organic movement, it’s still support. I see that as good.

    However, I don’t see why approaching support for local&organic food from a different angle, legislation, would not also be good. Why can’t a little bit of some of the billions we spend through our taxes in subsidies to growers of conventional, overproduced grain crops in this country be siphoned off and used to fund government food programs?

    For instance, the Community Food and Nutrition Program (or WIC, or the Food Stamp Program, etc.) could get money and education into the hands and minds of low-income purchasers on a local level, driving local food production. I think we currently underfund these programs.

  28. MFKsWolf says:

    Here is the letter Carlo Petrini wrote to CUESA. He wrote and sent this to CUESA BEFORE the meeting with the farmers which went so poorly. CUESA chose, for reasons unknown, not to share this letter with the farmers before that event. I don’t know if they have done so yet.


    Dear CUESA,

    I was quite surprised to learn in the past few days about some negative
    reactions to a passage called *Green California* in my
    just-published book, Slow Food Nation, and wanted to take a moment to
    try to explain my intentions and clarify what I believe happened.

    First of all, I want to apologize for any offense caused by this
    passage, whether to your organization or the many farmers who are your
    members and collaborators. It was absolutely not my intention to
    denigrate or attack the farmers of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market – or
    of any farmers market, for that matter. I hope that you will consider
    the rest of my book, not to mention the range of Slow Food projects I
    have founded over the past twenty years, a testament to the deep
    admiration I feel for the farmers who grow sustainably and depend on the
    direct market economies of farmers markets, both in the United States
    and around the world. The network of farmers and food producers that we
    brought together at Terra Madre has only helped to reinforce how
    strongly I believe in the importance of farmers as defenders of the
    earth and stewards of our future.

    In part, I believe that the translation of this passage was,
    unfortunately, not as accurate as it should have been, and that the
    misinterpretation of certain phrases and the omission of a few key words
    resulted in a tone that differs significantly from the spirit of what I
    wrote in Italian. In fact, my original words were meant to demonstrate
    the positive impression I had of the two farmers with whom I spoke,
    based on their apparent success in making farming a viable livelihood
    for themselves.

    I have also come to realize that this specific passage may be
    vulnerable to misunderstandings when judged outside of the context of
    the chapter in which it resides, not to mention the book in its
    entirety. For this I can only apologize for the imperfections of my own
    writing, in my attempt to explore some of the contradictions that exist
    within the highly relative concept of sustainability.

    The loss of biodiversity in our food supply; the rights of migrant farm
    workers; the elitism argument against organic and artisanal foods; not
    to mention the twin epidemics of obesity and hunger that plague our
    planet, are all contradictions which we need to acknowledge and explore
    in a way that respects multiple cultures and points of view.

    I believe strongly that the only way in which we can overcome these
    contradictions is to create a dialogue where we face these issues with
    an open mind and a generous heart, and I hope that with this in mind, we
    can come to the table together to recognize our common values and chart
    a path forward that unites our work in the pursuit of food that is good,
    clean and fair.

    In friendship/Sincerely/With respect,

    Carlo Petrini
    Slow Food International

  29. sarah says:

    uh, what does anyone expect? everyone at the ferry plaza was wealthy cuz that’s all that’s left in sf. me and my family left it years ago for the hipper, cheaper portland, oregon.

  30. Bee says:

    I have wanted to go to the Ferry Market for a few months now…it would be a day away from the ranch, so I try to plan carefully my time….I am not rich,I never was a popular gal in school and I don’t know anyone famous: but I do know that fresh, organic produce costs a bit more and I am happy to support the local organic farmers that produce it as best I can. I was saddened by the “assuming” and “labeling” of people by their looks (young, hippie farmer)who works to surf….so what? Isn’t that what we hope to do with our “extra” time and money…the things we like to do? All this judgement and what seems to me like a bit of elitism (I can’t afford to eat at Chez Panisse…does that make me not as worthy a person?)does no good to the heart of the person who wants this world to understand the ned to slow down, food and otherwise, before we burn ourselves out. As a relative new comer to all of this local, organic eating, it makes me feel defeated before I have begun….fear not, I won’t quit, it just makes me sad for the future if people who know better behave worse.

  31. ExPat Chef says:

    It read as pretty condescending, frankly and overblown prose sucks in general. Petrini is critical on one hand even as the other is forking in dinner at Chez Panisse. Slow Food has some good points, but my local convivium is used by the chef who heads it to advertise himself and real events are nearly non-existent for anything otherwise. I did not renew my membership because of that. There’s room at the table for many locavore groups, and I am not sure I need an international group to inspire me to eat locally! Particularly when there is such a contradiction in behavior versus action. I say anyone who buys local is doing just as much for the greater good, wealthy or not.