Terra Madre 2008: Grist reports from Italy on the slow food scene

Turin, Italy — The critique of "fast food" needs to be nuanced. Pre-fab burgers from corn-fed cows, cooked to the cardboard stage by deskilled, exploited workers and washed down with corn-syrupy Coke: surely a calamity on many fronts.

But other modes of fast food are possible, even necessary. In most of the world’s cities — especially outside of the United States — there’s a kind of canteen of the streets: stalls where one can find quick, delicious, and cheap fare on the hoof, sustenance for a busy day.

As a journalist living in Mexico City a few years ago, a tiny stand featuring hauraches and tlacoyos — variations on the griddled-corn-flatbread-topped-with-vegetables-and-meat theme — got me through my days. I still crave them.

Antica Focacceria
The Antica Focacceria San Francisco stand at Terra Madre.
Photo: Tom Philpott.

I’ve learned to guess the quality of an unknown stand by looking for class diversity. When I see guys in dark business suits sidling up shoulder to shoulder with construction workers for some delicacy, I figure I’ve hit the culinary jackpot.

Here at Terra Madre, they’ve got a section devoted to street food from around Italy. Saturday and Sunday, when the conference was thronged to the hilt, it provided an excellent facsimile of a real street scene — and a demonstration of the culinary and social value of fast food done right.

The room was nearly impossible to walk through, jammed with people queuing up for and getting down with fragrant fast food. A kind of dull roar filled the air: low murmurs, serious chewing, and the crackle of calamari hitting hot grease.

One of my favorite establishments on the globe had a stand there: the Antica Focacceria San Francisco, based in Palermo, Sicily. They specialize in these delectably greasy, pungent sandwiches featuring beef spleen. (The European Union is always trying to ban these treats, citing some misguided hygiene law).

While I waited in a long line for one, a friend pushed his way close to me holding a paper cone of salty, hot fried calamari. We commissioned another friend to grab us each a cup of white wine from another stall while we waited for sandwiches, noshed on calamari, and got jostled about by the crowd. It was glorious.

People have been eating street food at least since Roman times. The effort to wrest fast food from the death grip of McDonald’s, et al, reminds me of a quote from the unclassifiable German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin: “In every age an attempt must be made to wrest tradition from a conformism that is about to overcome it.”