On May 10 Dairy Queen and I went to a lecture by Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini, who's on the road to promote the English-language release of his book "Slow Food Nation." The book, which we have not yet read, is about the future of food, and what we must do to prevent disaster. Petrini will lecture in five more cities in the next two weeks: May 15 in New York City, May 17 in Princeton, NJ: May 19 in Chicago; May 22 in Chapel Hill, NC; and May 23 in Raleigh, NC. (Details for the events can be found on The Ethicurean's calendar.)
The DQ and I have collaborated on this summary of the evening for you. We were encouraged to hear the patriarch of Slow Food — a movement often accused of elitism and misunderstood as prioritizing pleasure over the political aspects of food — say that both taste and ecological awareness are critical ingredients for modern gastronomy. All in all, it was an interesting, thought-provoking talk.
Call to arms
Thursday's master of ceremonies was Corby Kummer (left), senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly and author of "The Pleasures of Slow Food." He began the program with a very short film by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis Ford Coppola) that lingered on hands slowly skinning some knobby brown potatoes. The narration: "An artist once said that even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art, if it is a conscious act."
In a trim suit that framed his prosperous belly, Petrini spoke in Italian, delivering passionate, brief paragraphs in a rolling baritone as he strode about the stage. Kummer, who was wearing some unaccountably baggy trousers, trailed behind him to translate, which he did with an often-nasal, ironic delivery that Dairy Queen for one found rather distracting. Much of the audience appeared to speak Italian (a San Francisco Italian culture group was one of the cosponsors), and at times Kummer translated only roughly, omitting a few rhetorical flourishes and repetitions.
Although Petrini salted his talk with funny jibes at American foodies — "recipes, recipes, everywhere you look" and all those "pictures of dishes taken from above, like an autopsy," or like "porn with a spoon" — his main themes were deadly serious:
Industrial production of food is destroying food and the Earth
Man has asked too much of Mother Earth, and she is tired, said Petrini. More than a century and a half's worth of chemicals have turned "soil into leather." (He said he would go through five paradoxes on this subject, but we only counted three.) The first was the idea that in order to produce more food, we need more chemicals. The Italian word for manure is derived from the Latin word for joy, he told the audience: Thus "shit is happiness." In the old days, he said, villagers cared for manure almost like it was a baby, because of its importance in feeding the family. The ancient Romans, he said, called manure's aroma the "perfume of the centuries."
The second paradox is that to produce food for us, the Earth requires more energy than it gives out — tremendous amounts more in the case of modern agriculture, particularly feedlot meat. Finite resources are used to ship food all over the world. Petrini was particularly worked up about Italy importing Chinese tomatoes, possibly most because of their comparative tastelessness. Factory farms have contaminated the groundwater beneath them and polluted the soil and air. And the number of farmers has dropped drastically. In 1950, half the active workforce in Italy was farmers; now it is 4%, he said, and in America it is less than 2%.
"How are we supposed to give everyone food?" he asked. "We can't eat computers. All of this technology can't actually grow food. But TV tells us, 'Don't worry about it, we'll take care of it. GMOs, additives, and MSG. We'll produce all of these rotten things to eat and serve it to you with pleasure and a commercial."
Gastronomy + Environmentalism = Gastroecology
"I'm sorry if you expected me to give you a few cooking tips," joked Petrini. "But tonight I have another sort of recipe for you: ecology."
To date, gastronomy and ecology have been living in separate universes. Gastronomes don't think too much, Petrini claimed, they are happy to have good food produced using any method, brought to them from anywhere. But these days, "any gastronome who is not an environmentalist and who doesn't respect the person who produced the food is an idiot," said Petrini, adding later that any environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is "pathetic."
Petrini used the metaphor of "metabolism" to explain the earth's ecosystem: humans (and animals) eat food, digest it, transform it, make manure. The earth follows a reverse process, starting with manure and ending with food.
"Recipes!" he roared. "They should be thinking about high philosophy, the sensuality of tasting."
(We vote for thinking about both.)
Slow Food International helped to set up an institute for gastronomy in Italy. The students don't just learn how to cook and eat, but instead also study agriculture, chemistry, history, anthropology, and political economy. Holistic eating to Petrini means considering customs, history, poetry, and music.
Good, Clean and Fair
Dairy Queen here: We've talked a fair amount on this blog about the importance of framing, or invoking a metaphor that helps people contextualize an idea the way you would like them to. The food movement seems to be particularly challenged in this area, with no easy, memorable way to differentiate what we call SOLE food (a contrived acronym of sustainable, organic, local and ethical) and factory food, or what the rest of the world just calls "food."
Slow Food has developed its own litany of adjectives meant to differentiate desirable food from flawed. They are:
Petrini spent a fair amount of time arguing why we must spend more money on food. (Check out the interesting, sometimes heated discussion we recently had about this topic in our comment section.) While Italians spend 15% of their earnings on food, down from 32% in 1970, choosing to spend more on clothes, shoes, and cars, "It's a disaster to spend less on food," Petrini argued. Cheap prices result in corner cutting and thus mad-cow disease and dioxin in chicken. He found it preposterous that no one blinks at the cost of motor oil, but that a fine bottle of olive oil for the same price is considered too expensive.
"We have to pay more," he urged. "Anything I eat, after a few seconds is Carlo Petrini. But Armani underwear is always on the outside."
Localism and a new kind of ruralism
During the main presentation, Petrini didn't mention local foods by name, but did talk about the concept of choosing local food over far-away organic food during the brief question-and-answer session. "Our primary goal has to be to make agriculture local again," he said. "A product that has traveled short distances is inherently healthy." (We can think of several counterexamples here, but we'll abide by the basic premise. However, we wish Petrini had mentioned the somewhat paradoxical situation that many of Slow Food's artisans: to preserve their traditional methods they must have international distribution.)
The final question from the audience was about whether it was even feasible to reverse the modern trend toward massive cities and empty countrysides. Petrini called that an extremely "delicate" question, because there is a reason that people have fled their small villages: a lack of jobs, schools, and community. To encourage people to move back to the countryside, a new kind of ruralism would have to be nurtured, one that not only valued agriculture but also fostered libraries, movie theaters, bakeries — a community fabric. "We don't want farmers to have to lead the difficult, tough lives of their ancestors," Petrini said, referring to the frequent criticism leveled at Slow Food and the organic movement about a nostalgia for a much more labor-intensive period of agriculture.
To this, we would add that urban areas could and should grow more food. We have so much wasted land in America. Someday soon we'd love to see suburbanites proudly planting the space in front of their house with veggies, a la Edible Estates; the absurdly large lawns in front of corporate buildings in the East planted with food crops instead of golf-course style lawns; fruit trees in every yard; and community gardens on municipal roofs in New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.