Yale University students, staff, and other community members crowded a university conference room yesterday to watch Erika Lesser, director of Slow Food USA, give a talk on the Slow Food movement in America. Lesser spoke pretty generally about Slow Food USA’s goals, philosophy, and achievements. The talk was interesting in itself, but there were two aspects that I found particularly significant:

  • Lesser made some very interesting connections between Slow Food and American environmentalism (more on this below).
  • It was a horribly cold, rainy, awful day, the talk was located in an incredibly out-of-the-way part of campus, yet nonetheless the room was packed.

Slow Food, so the story goes, was founded by Italians who rallied around a protest against a McDonalds in Rome. From what I previously knew about Slow Food (two of my colleagues conduct research on the European-based organization), I had perceived it as a movement focused primarily on taste and preserving heirloom or heritage foods.

Yet in this talk, Lesser made some important links between Slow Food and the environmental movement. She spoke specifically about “eco-gastronomy,” a term she used to link taste and pleasure with a wider ecological consciousness. Eco-gastronomy bridges the gap from the taste-based, European movement to the American eco-conscious audience, an important step for Slow Food USA. “We realized that, going back to the early days of Slow Food, that pleasure, and good flavor, is not enough,” she said. So Slow Food moved up the taste ladder to a wider focus on ecology and environmentalism.

“If we wanted to preserve the pleasure that was on our plates,” Lesser stressed, “we had to pay attention to the origins of our food. But not just the origins, but the whole system that the food came from. And the system is our ecology.”

This linking of taste and ecology in the form of eco-gastronomy is a key step forward in the merging of food politics with environmental issues. In a continuation of this theme, Lesser went on to talk about Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, which is essentially an endangered species list for foods. Importantly, only tasty foods are allowed entry onto the Ark — Slow Food, like enviros, has a weakness for charismatic species.

What struck me about Lesser’s talk were the fascinating ways in which Slow Food has borrowed from the successes of the environmental movement, and also recognized and tried to avoid environmentalism’s failures. Lesser talked about Americans’ Puritanical tendencies, and how Slow Food is not about denial but about pleasure. This was an explicit nod to the part of environmentalism’s history that based itself in self-denial (bike don’t drive, save don’t shop, eat vegetables not meat), and how Slow Food rejects this type of denial, opting instead for a full-on embrace of the sensual and pleasurable.

Yet Slow Food’s brilliance comes from its embrace of what does work in environmentalism. The genius involved in creating an Endangered Species List of foods is one example. Interdisciplinary connection-making is another. Lesser gave an example of this when she spoke about Slow Food USA’s partnership with a small group of poultry breeders in Pittsboro, N.C.: American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. This group works to preserve heritage breeds of domesticated poultry, and has been around since 1977. According to Lesser, the Conservancy had remained a somewhat marginal organization until their partnership with Slow Food catalyzed a new type of market connection for them — a connection focused on history, small farming, and taste.

Another fascinating part of Lesser’s talk was her introduction of a specific movement vocabulary. “It’s always about story-telling in Slow Food,” she said, and this was evident in her presentation. Slow Food has specifically cultivated a “creation myth” that tells an inspirational founding story. (We have Rachel Carson, Slow Food has Carlos Petrini.) It crafts a specific language for its members, calling chapter groups “convivia,” and its activist food protection projects “presidia,” from the Latin word for “fort.”

Essentially, Slow Food crafts a culture around its movement. It not only has its own values, but it creates new words to embody these values, giving movement members a cultural vocabulary. A key difference between Slow Food and general environmental activist groups seems to be the focus on crafting a rich sense of history, culture, and pleasure around the movement. Since a particular interest of mine (and others, I imagine) is imagining and crafting ways to make eco-consciousness more palatable and relevant to a wider audience, this might be something worth pondering further.

Finally, here’s a shout-out to the talk’s sponsor: Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.This Center is home to Kelly Brownell, a professor whose fascinating work focuses on obesity and the psychology of food. (I was first introduced to Brownell’s work in a story I heard on NPR a while back.) He and Lesser have both done work with Marion Nestle, an NYU professor who’s written a few important books about food.