I recently realized that I have yet to write a post explaining the Slow Food Movement (SFM), which is my favorite food movement. Consequently, I gathered up all the books I have on the SFM and brought them to the Ranch in preparation for writing this post. I was then reminded that I have written extensively on the subject for a Sociology class a few years ago. I have spread this essay to the general populace through several means and decided that adding it to this blog would be beneficial. So, keep in mind while reading this post that all of the information was originally intended for an audience of Sociologists.
I have added some modifications to the original paper, namely highlighting key ideas in bold lettering so that you can easily pick them out.
That said, I hope you enjoy learning about the SFM, or even furthering your knowledge of the subject, as the case may be.
Having read a large amount of material on the Slow Food Movement (hereafter referred to as SFM), I find it necessary to interject my own sociological analysis on its principles. Within this paper, I will address several tenets of the SFM and how they can be used to alter the social structure of a progressive capitalist society, specifically the United States, in a positive way. I will discuss several issues surrounding the SFM including, but certainly not limited to, the social structures that demand for such a movement to exist, how the concepts presented by the SFM can aid American society, and critiques surrounding the movement. (I acknowledge that the term American truly refers to all peoples living in North and South America; however, for the purposes of this paper, I will use the term to refer to citizens of the United States.) Through this analysis of the SFM, I hope to explore how the concepts presented by the movement are necessary for our society and how peoples and groups who are not associated directly with the SFM perpetuate them.
The History of the Movement
The SFM is generally viewed as beginning in 1986 as a protest to the opening of a McDonald’s in the Piazza di Spagna, Rome spurred by Carlo Petrini (Padovani 2006). However, the movement attributes its true beginning to another organization known as Arci (the Associazione ricrreativa culturale italiana) a previously political leftist group who had discovered the convivial pleasures of food and wine, especially of the local variety (Padovani 2006). The group participated in many gastronomic and enological events and came to understand “a new balance between conviviality per se and a system of cultural values” (Padovani 2006:9). The group claimed for the Left the idea of pleasure; they thought of the “snobbish haute bourgeoisie” as gluttons, not connoisseurs (Padovani 2006:9). The political ties of the group allowed them to connect with regional producers, including a closed circle of Borolo wine producers. They connected to this group through Bartolo Mascarello. It was in his living room that the wine producers and Petrini forged the idea of a club, “something like the then-trendy gastronomical academies, but with the specific goal of spreading the culture of good food even among ordinary people” (Padovani 2006:12). Thus was born the precursor to Slow Food associations the Libera e benemerita associazione degli amici del Barolo (Free and praiseworthy association of the friends of Barolo). Throughout Italy, other institutions were born and given voice by Petrini in La Gola, a monthly magazine that was contributed to by “writers, poets and artists” and focused on food culture; the publication ran from 1982-1988 (Padovani 2006:17).
In 1986, many tragedies struck Italy. The methanol-tainted wine scandal that killed 19 families and herbicide contamination polluting the water of Po Valley are two examples (Padovani 2006:17–18). The group Arci Gola (later called Slow Food) was born in the context of these travesties. The ideas promoted by the group began to get a lot of attention; “the focus was on enjoying the traditions of the farmhouse, trading the stories and knowledge of the older generation, and eating well” (Padovani 2006:52). In 1987, Carlo Petrini wrote, “Here are the coordinates within which I think the work of Arci Gola should situate itself and grow: environmental protection and consumer protection, with the right amount of conviviality, good living, enjoyment, and pleasure that such issues require” (Padovani 2006:56).
The rest of the history of the SFM is long and arduous; therefore, I shall not make you suffer through it. The point of this section is to explain exactly where the movement comes from, specifically the Italian communist party and the search for conviviality and pleasure taken in the consumption of regional foods and wine. The background of 1986 is more significant than a mere opening of McDonald’s in Rome. The effects of industrialization on the food and drink of thousands of people in Italy spanned from methanol poisoning to water contamination. The opening of McDonald’s merely added to the problems being experienced by Italians because of globalization and industrialization which promoted bland, standardized food with health regulations that threatened the regional specialties.
Slow Food Movement Principles
In 1987, the Manifesto dello Slow Food was drafted by Folco Portanari (Petrini 2001:13) and signed by fifteen countries in December of 1989. The manifesto called for “Homo Sapiens to rid himself of speed before it reduces him to a species in danger of extinction” (Anon 2011). Petrini tells us, “In 1991, the year of the second national congress at Perugia, the association emerged as a new phenomenon in the food and wine market in Italy. It brought together several tens of thousands of enlightened consumers, supplied them with publications, supported the education of the sense of taste and smell, promoted gatherings and large-scale events, and thus had enough weight to exert a considerable degree of influence on the market for good-quality food and wine” (Petrini 2001:14).
In 1996, the first Salone del Gusto (literally, Hall of Taste) was held in Turin. The same year, the SFM launched its L’Arca del Gusto (Ark of Taste) (Petrini 2001:11). “The task of the new association was to combine styles and notions that were thought incompatible until that time: excellent quality and affordable prices, enjoyment and health, delight in life’s pleasures and social awareness, quickness and lazy rhythms” (Petrini 2001:12). The purpose of these projects is to bring people together to appreciate the taste of local foods, to promote exchange between farmers, chefs and gastronomists, and to protect regional biodiversity.
The SFM is also not arguing to completely alter the production back to the old model. Instead, it is arguing for a synthesis of the old and the new: “a modern agronomic science that enters into dialogue with agroecology and traditional knowledge; and a scientific research that does not go only in the direction of productivism but places itself at the service of the producing communities and of small-scale agriculture, combining their respective skills” (Petrini 2007:182). Petrini argues that traditional farming knowledge should supplement the new age technology; allowing for quicker, easier cultivation of a biologically diverse ecosystem.
There are three principles that the SFM promotes in regards to food; it must be good, clean and fair. Good meaning healthful and delicious, clean meaning sustainably produced, and fair meaning socially just. The Salone del Gusto and the L’Arca del Gusto promote these principles by connecting people to regional dishes and the people (farmers, chefs, etc.) who make them possible. The Ark of Taste serves to aide those who are trying to preserve a regional tradition, food, or dish. However, the goal of the SFM is not to create bubbles in which populations of a region shall only taste local, seasonal produce. In fact, Petrini himself says, “to eat a different kind of food in every street in the world is the best answer to fast food” (Petrini 2001:18).
The SFM also has the goal of preserving regional flavors, which would be lost to the industrialized model. An example of this is Laguiole cheese. When the Fleur d’Aubrac cows indigenous to the region of Laguiole, France were replaced with “more productive” Holsteins, the cheese became impossible to cultivate. As Valadier, head of the association of AOC cheese producers tells it, “Their milk, which contains much less fat and also less protein than that produced by the indigenous cows (as well as being less tasty), is virtually useless for making Laguoile cheese” (Petrini 2007:15). Many other examples from around the world would not be hard to find. Indeed, here in North America, the production of corn has become reduced to a mere fraction of the species that were once widely available because of industrializations preference for high yields (Pilcher 1998). The flavors reduced to those of sweet kernel corn and commodity No. 2 corn (Pollan 2007; Pilcher 1998).
L’Arca del Gusto is an important project for the SFM to undertake for this and other reasons. The problem with losing biodiversity in regions is that you also lose knowledge of which plants are edible, such as happened with amaranth in Tehuacan. In 2002 one winner of the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity was attempting to reintroduce amaranth into “one of the poorest areas in Mexico” (Petrini 2007:11). This food had been used for many “nutritional and medicinal purposes” a mere two generations before, but had been lost because of the globalization of intensive cultivation (Petrini 2007:11–13). Clearly, as biodiversity is lost, so is the knowledge needed to cultivate certain foods and use them in creating healthy meals.
A final principle that I wish to bring to light is that surrounding education, on which the SFM puts a great emphasis. Petrini (2001) states, “pleasure without knowledge is merely self-indulgence” (61). He talks of a time when knowledge of food, recipes, customs and traditions that require special feasts were passed down from parent to child (68). Then, he points out that the children of our time have knowledge and tastes that are formed by industrialization and the food industry (68). As Petrini (2001) aptly advocates, “It is not so much a question of fighting a fundamentalist war against the spread of the hamburger as it is of informing, stimulating curiosity, giving everyone the opportunity to choose” (69). The SFM promotes the education of children when they are young, so that their tastes can be developed before the school system’s industrialized foods can undermine their ability to learn (Petrini 2001:73). That is not to say that someone cannot learn after they are tainted with industrialized foods. Indeed, in 2004 the movement opened its University of Gastronomic Sciences, which is open to students of all ages and backgrounds (Padovani 2006). The movement also holds workshops, which allow people to “examine a food or beverage carefully, in a setting divorced from everyday eating rituals, and see them for what they really are” (Petrini 2001:77). Slow Food seeks to educate people about taste; sustainable practices and why factory farms are a negative thing; how to cultivate and use their regional flora and fauna; and how fast food is not the way to a healthy life (Petrini 2001; Padovani 2006; Petrini 2007; Anon 2011).
Social Structure and Application of Slow Food Principles
The Industrial and Green Revolutions served to create a social structure that revolved around fast-paced, efficient society. The Industrial Revolution gave us machines that sped up production and allowed for larger areas of land to be used for agriculture. It brought with it ideas of Fordism: one-size-fits-all mass production, assembly line production, and the rising of wages to promote consumption (Tolliday and Zeitlin 1987). The Green Revolution brought with it a way to dispose of the chemicals created in World War II and a furthered reliance on the principles of science. Synthetic fertilizers using the N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) principle began to be used along with synthetic pesticides. These factors combined to create foods that were grown by synthetic chemical means, producing immense quantities of commodity foods like No. 2 corn that needs to be processed further to make edible products, like high-fructose corn syrup (Pollan 2007). These two revolutions added to the idea that all products are the same, taking away from the quality regional products hold. Consequently, they added to the purchasing of foods that travel long distances, but are cheaper in price. The revolutions also began to decrease the biodiversity of many regions in the world by replacing the regional varieties with the most efficient plants (Petrini 2007).
The problem with this type of production is that it is unsustainable. Monocultures are depleting the soil as well as regional plants and animals (which were adapted to a specific area). The nutrition of our foods is lowered because of industrialized growing methods (Pollan 2007; Petrini 2007, 2001). The diminution of regional varieties and standardization of food is most disconcerting. This has caused a depletion of regional dishes that depend upon the specific flavor of a product just like the milk of the Fleur d’Aubrac cows for Laguiole cheese (Petrini 2007:14–16). Indeed, if you have ever tasted a tomato (or any other produce) grown organically and picked fresh from the garden, you understand just how bland the flavors of industrially grown foods truly are. As mentioned above, these are two of the main issues that the SFM addresses: biodiversity and taste.
Sociologically speaking, the postmodern world in which we live creates “the need to search for comfort in a slower-moving past” (Tam 2008:209). Modern elites have very little time to spend on gathering and preparing food, a fact that led to the rise in processed, precooked and packaged, bland meals. The rise of Post-Fordism also changed our system of production; catering to niche markets rather than having one standardized product allowed producers to package the same product in different ways and charge a higher price for it (Lipietz 1997). Now these pre-made meals can cater to children, young adults, middle aged adults and elders as well as vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians and so forth.
As a result of this fast-paced lifestyle, we are unable to take leisurely time to travel to distant places. However, popular notions idealize these places in our minds. For example, Tuscany, Italy has become the setting for popular romantic thoughts thanks to Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun; however, Italian olive oil producers found the book to be “inaccurate and boring” (Meneley 2004:167). Marketing analysts use this to promote foods that give us a sense of place. As Meneley (2004) points out, “The commodification of Tuscany itself depends on foreign imaginings of it as a desirable place” (167). Tam (2008) expresses the culmination of all these factors: “The combination of individuality, of sourcing and of information creates an image of tradition and authenticity that feeds a current need in the social life of commodities” (212). As Tam (2008) points out, Appadurai (1993) calls this “armchair nostalgia”, which is allowing the general population to remember an experience that they have never really had. This is what the market of industrialization and Post-Fordism thrives on.
The SFM proposes that rather than allow oneself to be consumed by “armchair nostalgia” you travel and experience these sensations in real life to their fullest extent. Slow Food allows yourself to slow down and take time to enjoy a meal, some company, or a culture, rather than speeding through life with mere imitations presented in a box that you throw in the oven or microwave. Petrini (2001) states,
Some people even maintain that a richly varied intake of food is economically unrealistic nowadays, or incompatible with the amount of time available. But monotonous eating is actually a recent and invasive phenomenon, related to consumerism and higher disposable incomes and the devaluation of food as pleasure (23).
He argues that in fact, the opposite is true and our declining income requires us to eat what is readily available, pointing to what is eaten during wars and famine (Petrini 2001:23). He goes on to point out that the notion of having no time is preposterous; “we have more free time than any generation in history, with our reduced working hours and long weekends” (Petrini 2001:24). The idea of the SFM is to live slow in all aspects of life, not just in regards to cooking meals that require time and effort, but realizing just how much time we do have to spend on activities that do not revolve around the capitalist need to gain and spend money; to understand that we have time to get to know the farmer who grows our produce and raises our cattle in a sustainable way that will allow the human population to perpetuate rather than becoming extinct like so many species we have driven to extinction.
“Some people see food as no more than nourishment, but others experience all its rich dimensions of health, hedonism, and culture.” (Petrini 2001)
Pietrykowski (2004) states that as consumers, we adapt our consumption in light of how we are perceived by others, while influencing others in the same way (308). As Lock and Scheper-Hughes (2010) point out, we in the United States have a “’healthist’ and body-conscious culture” with health being “an achieved rather than an ascribed status” (546). As a result of this, each person judges others based on how they look and act with regard to fitness. However, at the same time people are expected to flaunt their wealth by consuming as much as possible: “Competitive consumption becomes a race run on a treadmill with the goal of superior social status lying just out of reach” (Pietrykowski 2004:308). Because of the perceived need of being thin and fit, but at the same time being an indulgent consumer, many women and men have developed eating disorders. This is especially hard on American women “since one cannot be hedonistic and controlled simultaneously, one can alternate phases of binge eating, drinking, and drugging with phases of jogging, purging, and vomiting. Out of this cyclical resolution of the injunction to consume and to conserve is born, according to Crawford, the current epidemic of eating disorders” (Lock and Scheper-Hughes 2010:546). Women can become obsessed with the idea of food and yet repulsed by it, causing a strong desire to avoid the subject altogether. Petrini (2001) says of the general populace, “We still mortify the flesh when we sit down to eat, denying ourselves wine and tasty treats under the illusion that it will keep us perfect and immune” (23).
There is a connection with this social structure and the idea of eating alone. Because consumers are afraid of appearing too gluttonous, the idea of eating on their own becomes more appealing. Advertisements clearly show the tendency towards this thinking. Dove presents us with images of a woman indulging in chocolate alone in her apartment. Yoplait plays on the fact that women want to be fit, but still shows a woman eating the “dessert” alone. We can also see genderization in advertisements (Bordo 1998). Again using the example of Yoplait, there are other commercials that depict the woman talking about a sweet treat to her friend on the phone while her husband combs the fridge for the dessert. We then see that the dessert was simply the flavors of the treat compacted into a healthier yogurt. The woman clearly has more pressures not to eat sweets than the man. This is another social structure that is embodied by our food.
I argue here that the mandates of the SFM could counteract this negative social structure. By putting forward the idea that we should consume good, clean food, the movement would help women and men to come to a better relationship with their food. Indulging in a meal, indeed deriving pleasure from the act of eating, would no longer be seen as a negative action. Because the food is good for the body it would aid in the health of the individual. The idea of fair food is also relevant here, in reference to the idea of consuming while conserving. As a consumer of fair food, an individual would be able contain money within the community. As a result, both the tenets are fulfilled. Therefore, by following the SFM, Americans would be able to satisfy their image of healthy eating practices while indulging their capitalist needs as well. This change in social structure would allow for a healthier relationship with food. Consequently, fewer women, and men, would be caught in the dilemma of wanting food but being repelled by it.
The idea of food as a base for community and family is also presented by the SFM. As Alice Waters says, “The ritual of cooking and eating together constitutes the basic element of family and community life” (Petrini 2001:x). The idea of eating alone is no longer a viable option. Eating should be about family and communication. It should be a time when people relax and enjoy a meal, the taste and the company. It is a time for reflection and thinking about something other than work and the fast pace of life.
Critiques of the Movement
A majority of the SFM critics point out that it is an elitist movement. Indeed, an Italian olive oil producer has said, “Slow Food paradoxically serves to promote the interests of the larger rather than the smaller producers it claims to champion”. It is easy to see this perception with the likes of Alice Waters promoting the SFM considering her meals at Chez Panisse cost vastly more than the average American can spend. However, I would argue that there are many organizations that promote the principles of the SFM without being directly associated with it. The People’s Café of Bello Horizante is one example. This café promotes sustainable food production and gives people, no matter economic status, a place to eat a healthy, slow meal for low cost (F. M. Lappé and A. Lappé 2003). Another example would be the town of Missoula, Montana’s Garden City Harvest program. The program connects farmers and community gardens to help feed the poverty-stricken residents (Smith 2010). Like the SFM, Garden City Harvest promotes education within the community by teaching visitors about the garden project, hosting interns from the local college, and having garden visit days for local school children (Smith 2010). The project promotes sustainable agriculture and even teaches people recipes to use the food they get from the CSA (community-supported agriculture) program (Smith 2010). To reiterate, I argue here that the SFM is not meant to be elitist, no matter what it may seem on the surface; there are many examples of institutions that follow the SFM principles and cater to those in poverty.
It has been said that the SFM does not address the ideas of class disparity and how that challenges people’s chance of obtaining its goals. Petrini (2001) points out that the amount of money we have truly pushes us towards buying local produce or growing our own. I would like to add to his argument that it is our acceptance of the principles of wanting “more for a buck” that pushes us towards consuming processed foods rather than whole foods. The problem with our society is we are concerned with the amount of calories we can intake for the cheapest price and are not educated in what foods would be better for us even on a smaller calories scale. As I mentioned earlier, Petrini (2001) also states as one of the L’Arca del Gusto’s long-term goals the synthesis of quality and affordability (12).
Like a political-economist would, I wish to point out another factor: the market in this Post-Fordist regime caters to the consumer. If everyone in the U.S. demanded foods that cater to the principles of the SFM, then the market would be forced to adjust. I would also bring to light that the SFM pushes local production, which is something that the U.S. tends not to cater to. Since producing materials in impoverished countries like Mexico or India is cheaper than producing them in the states, companies have moved their production outside the U.S. The globalization of the world has led to a decrease in jobs in our own land because of exploitation. Catering to the call for local production would give more jobs to local populations as well as keep money circulating within the local community.
A final critique of the movement is that is does not address the ideas of genderization and racism regarding food. I argue that it does not directly address these ideas because the movement should not have to address them. There should not be a genderization of food, nor a race/ethnicity association like is common in the U.S. (an example being that African Americans like fried chicken). It is not within the bounds of this paper to explore a full feminist view on this issue, so I will leave my argument at that. In regards to race/ethnicity, Petrini (2001) does advocate the tasting every variety of food in its place of origin; it could be argued that he believes the ethnic association with food would not be an issue since you would be in an ethnic culture.
I believe it is fair to say that the social structure in the U.S., as well as other capitalist and globalized countries, demands that a movement such as Slow Food exists. Throughout this paper, I have provided for you evidence of the usefulness of the principles of the Slow Food Movement: good, clean and fair food; protecting biodiversity; promoting education and sustainable growing practices; and developing an acceptance of pleasure in relation to food. These principles combat industrial practices that are leading us down a path that will deplete our resources and destroy biodiversity. They also address social structures that cause a love-hate relationship with food and poor education (both in regards to what our system does to the earth and ourselves, as well as to ancient knowledge of edible foods and artisanal production). The history of the movement itself shows that these practices pushed the founding members to fight back with Slow Food. The quick spread to other countries shows that these factors are present around the world. This is truly worrisome from a structural functionalist point of view because it means that the interconnected parts are following the wrong path; however, the SFM can aid in correcting that path.
The movement is not just about juxtaposing fast food with slow food; it is a way to change your life to suit that of the earth. It is a way to regain the regional knowledge that connects us with the life sustaining food and sustainable practices that will allow the human population to prosper for years to come. It is on the smallest level a symbolic interactionist’s dream; a way to find oneself through pleasure in food, taste, and company, as well as a chance to take time and reflect. Despite many critiques of the movement, I truly believe that its principle can help save the Earth, which the capitalist society has begun to destroy with the Industrial and Green Revolutions by promoting quantity over all else. Quality over quantity truly is the answer to many of our problems.
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