A recipe for change: Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini speaks in San Francisco

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.

kummer_petrini.jpgCall 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
  • All gastronomes must become environmentalists, all environmentalists must become gastronomes
  • Gastronomy isn't just about recipes or ingredients. It is about everything
  • The future of food must be good and clean and fair
  • Localism must be rediscovered

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:

  • Good: The food must have a fine taste. To determine this, you must take into account different cultures. Petrini is sick of journalists asking him what his favorite dish is: "The educated gastronome's favorite dish is curiosity." (Mental Masala wonders if Petrini feels the need to respect the American "culture" of McDonald's, Chili's and other chains? It's most likely a moot point because the American chains don't obey the next two rules.)
  • Clean: The food must be produced without destroying the ecosystem, with respect for the earth. Man isn't the only thing with rights: "Rivers, lakes, and mountains have rights too, and we have to stop being violent with them."
  • Fair: We must pay those who grow our food living wages, and allow them to charge a fair price. But quality cannot be the privilege of the few. Perhaps this statement was a response to the frequent criticism of Slow Food as an elitist and snobbish organization. More likely, it was his heartfelt opinion that we must strive to make good, clean and fair food available to all.

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.

7 Responsesto “A recipe for change: Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini speaks in San Francisco”

  1. sam says:

    did he say anything about his rumoured dislike of the SF ferry building farmers market? I am curious about his reasons for that.

  2. lily says:

    "... 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."

    ain't this the truth!!!

    I also agree with the point that there is currently much wasted space in the urban and suburban models. I personally am a country girl, but there's room for improvement wherever you end up. Which is nice, there's no one right way to resolve the local foods dilemmas - and possibilities. However it works out. (And as long as it works out.)

    also, I haven't commented before - but thanks to you all for all your blogging. I've enjoyed it a lot.

  3. DairyQueen says:

    Hi Sam: Someone did point us to this post about how unhappy Ferry Plaza market farmers are with Petrini's portrayal of a thinly disguised Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl, but we haven't read the book or heard anything firsthand, so we didn't want to fuel any rumor mills. Which I guess we are doing now. Oh well. Anybody know the truth?

    and Lily — thanks for reading, and thanks for taking time to comment!

  4. Sam (and DQ) -

    The words "Ferry Building" did not pass his lips during the talk. But the Rancho Gordo blog has a quote from Petrini's new book that seems to be the point of controversy (link 1 below). Petrini's main points are that the market feels like a boutique, that one of the farmers was wearing a suit and tie, that some of the olive oil comes from a huge monocultured orchard and that one of the farmers uses his farm revenues to go surfing. The monoculture complaint seems acceptable (would it be impossible to intersperse olive trees with native habitat?), but the others are a bit over the top. As for the exclusiveness of the Ferry Building market, does the market have a velvet rope and bouncers like an ultra-hip Hollywood nightclub? No, the market is open to all and easily accessible by subway, bus, car, ferry, foot or bicycle. In addition, the Ferry market has a method of accepting food stamps (link 2 below). Prices may be higher than other farmers markets, but I probably wouldn't be out of line to guess than these higher prices aren't making the farmers obscenely rich. Steve from Rancho Gordo has more to say about the life of the farmers mentioned in Petrini's book.

    Link 1: http://ranchogordo.typepad.com/rancho_gordo_experiments_/2007/05/slow_food_vs_th.html
    Link 2: http://www.cuesa.org/markets/market_tour_16.php

  5. DairyQueen says:

    And to Marc's point I would add that the current version of the CUESA newsletter discusses change at the Ferry Plaza market:

    CUESA’s goal is to support innovative local farms and to connect consumers with fresh, sustainably produced food. It is deeply disquieting to us to learn that some farmers aren’t making enough money to justify their attendance of the market, though others have seen steady increases in their sales.

    I am withholding judgment until I read the book (which could be a long time, particularly as I had no cash to buy it that night), but on the face of it I don't like the idea that there is a particular market "ideal" — farmers should be able to wear ties or wetsuits or whatever they darn well please, and if the vegetables look too clean, well, that's a peculiarly American fetish that perhaps should be tolerated rather than censured. Pastoral ideals be damned, these are real people growing real food. Let's skip the "friendly fire" and turn our attention to the groups and organizations that are truly harming the food system.

  6. jim says:

    Thanks for the on-the-nose coverage of Carlo's talk (I attended too). I'm surprised at his Ferry Building comments - I am reading the book but haven't reached that part yet. Sure, the FB is a showcase compared to local outlying farmer's markets, but so what? One of the aspects of the Slow Food movement I've enjoyed is its celebration of diversity! As long as we're moving in the same direction, there are plenty of ways to get there.

    I've just discovered this blog and anticipate spending lots of time here catching up on previous posts...thanks for putting together such an interesting site.

  7. Thought readers of this blog might be interested in hearing this podcast with Carlo: http://wholefoodsmarket.com/socialmedia/podcast/2007/05/29/special-guest-interview-carlo-petrini/

    While it doesn't address the Ferry Plaza comments, it does give a good synopsis of the themes (good, clean, fair) covered in his book.

    Thanks for the good discussion that has begun here. From my perspective, what's most important is that we continue to appreciate different perspectives and remain focused on helping foster an open discussion concerning the very important issue of food sustainability. As we all know, it's a very complex issue and it deserves a thoughtful, balanced discussion to encourage change.