“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between,” Oscar Wilde once quipped.

Fresh, yes, but is it affordable?

Photo: Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market

Such observations didn’t always endear him to Victorian-era Americans. Wilde’s 1881 lecture tour of the United States, while ultimately viewed as a triumph, occasionally drew hecklers.

This spring, another famed European aesthete with the gift of gab swept through the U.S.: Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of the Slow Food movement. And like Wilde, Petrini’s blunt generalities about New World customs sometimes rankled his would-be admirers.

In Petrini’s case, his tour foundered on the stubborn enigmas of food and class in the United States. Rather than being hailed as a hero at San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market earlier this month, Petrini found himself exchanging heated words with farmers who felt insulted by a passage in his new book Slow Food Nation.

In the controversial passage, Petrini portrays the Ferry Market as a kind of foodie “boutique,” a place where well-rested farmers peddle pricey vegetables to an elite of “actresses” who then flaunt their heirloom squashes like the latest accessory.

A couple of weeks ago, not long after the Ferry Plaza affair, I caught up with Petrini and his entourage in North Carolina’s Piedmont area, where the tour made its final stop.

Furor at Ferry Plaza

Before I describe that meeting, some background on the Ferry Plaza affair. There’s little doubt that the passage in question, titled “Green California,” contains gross distortions, overstatements, and questionable assumptions. In this impressionistic account of a 2003 trip to the United States, Petrini seeks to expose the excesses of our Eden of sustainable ag, the Bay Area — and comment on the paradoxes of food and class in the process.

A fine day at Ferry Plaza.

Photo: Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market

Alice Waters, the doyenne of the U.S. sustainable-food movement, squires him to the Ferry Market Plaza, which Petrini finds “luxurious and very important.” Here’s how he describes the farmers he finds there: “amiable ex-hippies and young dropouts-turned-farmers … well-to-do college graduates, former employees of Silicon Valley, many of them young …” Intentionally or not, such language suggests that Petrini prefers his farmers old, broke, and uneducated — an unfortunate impression to give in the United States, where farmers are scarce (fewer than 2 percent of the population), in fact quite broke, and aging (average age: 55 years).

Petrini recounts conversations with two farmers, one who peddles “excellent” organic olive oil from olives grown on a 300-acre monocrop grove, and another who, Petrini suggests, fetches such a king’s ransom for his produce that he comes to the market only two weeks per month, taking his family surfing the other two weeks.

The implication: the farmers at Ferry are prospering by selling to a clientele divided among the “wealthy and very wealthy,” and (at least in the olive farmer’s case) betraying the ideals of organic agriculture, which favors biodiversity over monocropping. Meanwhile, while the wealthy brandish organic squash at Ferry, Petrini points out, the Bay Area’s low-income labor force queues up for sustenance at McDonald’s.

By all accounts, both in the blogosphere and in conversations I’ve had with people who know the market, the first farmer doesn’t exist; the second is a hardworking fellow who surfs two weeks per year.

Not surprisingly, among vendors at the Ferry Plaza Market, the passage went over like a head of conventionally grown iceberg lettuce. For the definitive account of the affair from the farmers’ side, see Steve Sando’s blog, starting with this post and clicking through the next several. In short, the vendors are incensed at the misrepresentations and the fact that Petrini has not explicitly apologized for them.

Petrini did apologize for offending the farmers, but stopped short of admitting to making things up. He backed off from language that seemed critical of the growers, blaming translation problems. But Sando and other farmers remained incensed by the passage and unsatisfied with the apology.

It was in the wake of these awkward events that I — someone who helps run a small vegetable farm with a CSA and a farmers’ market stand in western North Carolina — intersected with Petrini in the Chapel Hill area in North Carolina last week, where he was in town promoting his book and appearing at events in support of the sustainable-ag scene there.

Rolling With Carlo

Working with the Slow Food USA office, I had arranged two meetings with Petrini. On May 22, I toured with him and his entourage through farm country, visiting a couple of farms. I understood that any discussions would be informal and off the record. A day later, I got 15 minutes for a formal interview before a reception.

All of my interactions with him were mediated by a translator, sometimes two; my Italian has atrophied to the point of nonexistence, and Petrini doesn’t speak English. Still, I spent hours with him over a two-day span, and found him immensely appealing.

America’s farmers are growing older and poorer.

Photo: iStockphoto

He dresses stylishly but without ostentation, like you want a 60-ish northern Italian man to dress: light blazer, slacks, loafers. As we toured farms, he gently quizzed growers through his translators, listening intently as they described their crops, growing practices, and challenges. He speaks in intonations that might strike English speakers as singsong, with plenty of hand gestures; he laughs and smiles easily. It’s not hard to imagine him becoming amused by the goings-on at a tony American farmers’ market.

In our brief interview, I didn’t press him about the details of the Ferry Plaza affair; I thought it would be more interesting to discuss the underlying tension: food and class.

The interview was, by nature of our language gap, convoluted. His Italian assistant translated my questions to him, and Erika Lesser, Slow Food USA’s executive director, translated for me. In his answers, he stuck mainly to generalities about how small-scale farmers deserve a decent price for their goods. In the confines of our highly mediated conversation, he seemed much more interested in reestablishing his pro-farmer image than in addressing the class politics of sustainably produced food.

By the end of our anticlimactic conversation, it occurred to me that for all its heat, the Ferry Plaza affair had generated very little deep discussion, within the food community or elsewhere, of food and class.

Food and Class

For all its good work — and despite its roots within the Italian labor movement — Slow Food has itself been hounded by charges of elitism. The critique goes like this: Who but a rich few can spend time wringing their hands over whether, say, a cheese that’s been made in some Tuscan village for hundreds of years goes extinct — a cheese that only the well-off can afford anyway?

Yet Slow Food’s class problem really applies to the sustainable food movement in all industrialized nations, including the U.S. In short, our economy runs on cheap food; many people rely on it to feed themselves; and advocates of farmers’ markets, CSAs, and organic food are asking people to pay more for food without giving them a strategy for raising wages.

Thus we get situations like that of Dan Barber, that tireless champion of sustainable agriculture. At Barber’s restaurant on a pristine organic farm outside of New York City — perched on Rockefeller family land — the “farmer’s feast” runs $110 per person, much more than any farmer could afford, and well out of reach of most New Yorkers’ budgets.

Indeed, Blue Hill’s main clientele is almost surely the city’s expense-account-wielding elite — the very people whose demand for second homes and suburban mansions takes prime agricultural land out of cultivation, making locally grown food more scarce and thus expensive.

If the sustainable-food movement is to make good on its environmental and social promises, it will have to figure out ways to resolve these vicious contradictions. For all the buzz surrounding farmers’ markets and CSAs, for all the popularity of Slow Food USA and its burgeoning local convivia (chapters), the vast majority of people in the U.S. remain priced out of the trend — and many of them are unaware of the alternatives to industrial food.

In a nation that has seen median wages stagnate for 30 years even as real estate and health-care costs ratchet up, it’s no easy thing to ask low-income people to pay more for their food. At the same time, we can’t rightfully ask small-scale organic farmers growing for nearby markets to charge less for their produce. They’re competing against a highly consolidated, lavishly subsidized industrial food system — and few of them are doing much better than just scraping by.

This misalignment between local-oriented growers and most consumers stands, I think, as the sustainable-food movement’s most vexing paradox — and resolving it is its No. 1 challenge.

And that, to me, was Petrini’s real failure. Missing an opportunity to write a truly provocative commentary on the California scene, Petrini lapsed into easy caricature. Rather than being challenged to consider the class dynamics of Ferry Plaza and by extension similar markets across the country, the farmers justifiably became defensive: Petrini had apparently gotten key facts wrong.

Up to this point, Slow Food has played a key role in the sustainable-food movement, teaching gourmands that wonderful food isn’t a birthright of the privileged that appears by magic. Rather, Slow Food has shown, it’s a cultural artifact under relentless pressure from the very source that creates privilege in modern society: the machine that is consumer capitalism.

Evidently, Petrini wants to move Slow Food beyond that insight. Rather than merely address a food-obsessed elite, he’s pushing to democratize the pleasures of the table. But to do so effectively, he’ll have to find ways that don’t insult farmers or trivialize their struggle to make a living from the earth in our post-agricultural society. Judging from his life’s work, not from a single passage in his new book, I have high hopes that he’ll do just that.