Responding to a wrongheaded assault on Slow Food
The March, 2008 issue of Metropolis focuses on the overarching idea of localism and its relationship to sustainability. It is as always a beautiful and well-written issue, but in it one particular columnist, Bruce Sterling, has taken Slow Food to task — accusing us once again of that old canard, elitism.
It is not true, nor is it always such a bad thing anyway. Bear in mind that most of the great social movements throughout history were begun by the so-called “elite” (witness abolition and suffrage, not to mention that Ghandi was a well-to-do attorney). But the places Mr. Sterling gets it wrong are so manifold it’s hard to know where to start.
Let’s try here:
The Cornish Pilchard. The Chilean Blue Egg Hen. The Cypriot Tsamarella and Bosnian Sack Cheese. You haven’t seen these foods at McDonald’s because they are strictly local rarities championed by Slow Food, the social movement founded to combat the proliferation of fast food. McDonald’s is a multinational corporation: it retails identical food products on the scale of billions, repeatedly, predictably, worldwide. Slow Food, the self-appointed anti-McDonald’s, is a “revolution” whose aim is a “new culture of food and life.”
Actually you haven’t seen these foods at McDonald’s because McDonald’s sells hamburgers. Here Mr. Sterling has blundered by believing that who/what Slow Food is is somehow stagnant and monolithic. If such things were true then the US would still be a few puritan slave owners dotted up and down the east coast. Or the Chicago Cubs would have been the National League power for the last century. He goes on …
Slow Food began as a jolly clique of leftist academics, entertainers, wine snobs, and pop stars, all friends of Italian journalist and radio personality Carlo Petrini.
I’ve often wondered what it is about food and wine that makes those who appreciate it automatically labeled “snobs.” Wine is just fermented grape juice, actually one of the simplest foods known to man. For some reason the person who appreciates the inner workings of an internal combustion engine is not a snob, but someone who likes a well-made buerre blanc is.
The group is the suave host for massive international food events in Torino. Other Slow Food emanations include a hotel, various nonprofit foundations, and — in a particularly significant development — a private college. The University of Gastronomic Sciences, founded in 2004, is the training ground for 200-plus international Slow Food myrmidons per year, who are taught to infiltrate farms, groceries, heritage tourism, restaurants, commercial consortia, hotel chains, catering companies, product promotion, journalism, and government. These areas are, of course, where Slow Food already lives.
My, we are sinister, aren’t we? We are “suave,” and we are “infiltrating” a host of consortia and other institutions (notably journalism, after all, here I am) with our “myrmidons.” (Curious? Yeah, I had to look it up too — despite my apparent membership in the intellectual elite. It means “a follower who carries out orders without question.” Evidently now we’re a cult.)
I’m not sure why Mr. Sterling considers these ideas to be so threatening, but the fact is Slow Food couldn’t care less what the McDonalds and Monsantos of the world do, until they start to crap where we live. In the meantime, we promote these ideas because we believe them to be good ideas worthy of proliferation and preservation. Food defines who we are as individuals and as cultures. We are truly what we eat, and too many people are fast, cheap and easy. The right of ADM or Monsanto, Applebees or Burger King to swing its arms ends at the tip of the eater’s nose. Who owns your food owns you, and it is unwise to let that power rest in the hands of a very few wealthy corporations.
As the spiritual, political, and ideological wellspring of all things “eco-gastronomic,” Slow Food has woven a set of quiet understandings with the city of Torino, the region of Piedmont, the Italian Foreign Ministry, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Setting aside the kneejerk condescension for a moment, there’s been nothing “quiet” about it. Logos for those government bodies and organizations are emblazoned on, for example, all the literature regarding the Salone del Gusto, the largest food show of its kind, attracting 200,000 people each year. Oh, and yes, it’s in Italy. The organization was founded there. Our last International Leaders’ Congress was held in Puebla, Mexico because preserving the foods and traditions of the so-called “developing” world is at the top of Slow Food’s mission list. We are not as exclusionary as you seem to think.
In regard to Slow Food’s Presidia project, he had this to say:
The cleverest innovation to date is the network’s presidium system. The Slow Food “presidia” make up a grassroots bottom-up version of the European “Domain of Control” system, which requires, for instance, that true “champagnes” must come from the province of Champagne, while lesser fizzy brews are labeled mere “sparkling wines.” These presidia have made Slow Food the planetary paladin of local production. Slow Food deploys its convivia to serve as talent scouts for food rarities (such as Polish Mead, the Istrian Giant Ox, and the Tehuacan Amaranth). Candidate discoveries are passed to Slow Food’s International Ark Commission, which decides whether the foodstuff is worthy of inclusion. Its criteria are strict: (a) Is the product nonglobalized or, better yet, inherently nonglobalizable? (b) Is it artisanally made (so there’s no possibility of any industrial economies of scale)? (c) Is it high-quality (the consumer “wow” factor)? (d) Is it sustainably produced? (Not only is this politically pleasing, but it swiftly eliminates competition from most multinationals.) (e) Is this product likely to disappear from the planet otherwise? (Biodiversity must be served!)
Sterling seems to think this is being done for our organization’s own aggrandizement, or perhaps even profit. Simply not so. It’s being done because, as the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity clearly states:
- 75% of European food product diversity has been lost since 1900
- 93% of American food product diversity has been lost in the same time period
- 33% of livestock varieties have disappeared or are near disappearing
- 30,000 vegetable varieties have become extinct in the last century, and one more is lost every six hours
- The mission of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity is to organize and fund projects that defend our world’s heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic traditions.
- We envision a new agricultural system that respects local cultural identities, the earth’s resources, sustainable animal husbandry, and the health of individual consumers.
And yes, Mr. Sterling, biodiversity must be served. Nature does not function without it and the industrialization and standardization of food and flavors is a direct threat to that diversity. For those who would like to know the true mission (and criteria) of the Foundation for Biodiversity and the Presidia Projects, please click here.
It is, among its many other roles, a potent promotion machine. Transforming local rarities into fodder for global gourmets is, of course, profitable. And although he’s no capitalist — the much honored Petrini is more justly described as a major cultural figure — he was among the first to realize that as an economic system globalization destroys certain valuable goods and services that rich people very much want to buy.
There he goes again, thinking that there is some profit motive behind what we do, like our 501(c)3 status and clear and concise billing as an educational organization is just some sort of front for gluttonous noblesse oblige rather that an honest attempt to help preserve flavors, traditions, and ways of life. Does he really believe that mankind’s only choices are get on board with the agribusiness oligarchs or get run over by them? We think not. We think it’s a good idea to try to preserve great food. We think there should be more than one kind of hamburger in the world. More than one flavor of beer. We believe foundations and traditions are important because they make us who we are.
But while McDonald’s mechanically peddles burgers to the poor, Slow Food acculturates the planet’s wealthy to the gourmand quality of life long cherished by the European bon vivant. They have about as much in common as an aging shark and a networked swarm of piranhas.
Yes, McDonald’s does do that, as the overwhelming rates of obesity and diabetes among “the poor” (especially children) so clearly demonstrates. But far from reserving these “cherished” foods of the world for some elite class, Slow Food is working to proliferate them, and to return them to the artisans and yes, often peasants, from which they originated. We seek to make people aware of the connections between food and pleasure on the one hand, and awareness and responsibility on the other.
Mr. Sterling’s dismissal of Slow Food’s successful efforts as snobbery or elitism rings hollow. I suggest he read more, learn more, and perhaps visit Slow Food Nation this coming summer. It may open his eyes to a food system we call “Good, clean, and fair.”
“He who distinguishes the true savor of his food,” Thoreau once wrote, “cannot be a glutton. He who does not, cannot be otherwise.”