Although Slow Food's political dimension has become more prominent recently, it has always been part of its genetic makeup. The movement grew out of the gastronomical branch of ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana), a national network of social clubs founded by Petrini that was closely tied to the Italian Communist Party. In fact, the dissident Communist newspaper Il Manifesto originally published the gastronomical supplement called Gambero Rosso (the Red Crab), which evolved into Slow Food's authoritative restaurant and wine guides.
Notwithstanding these left-wing roots, Petrini has always believed that Slow Food needed to have a strong economic and commercial backbone. "When I was starting ARCIGOLA (the gastronomical section of ARCI), I went to see Ralph Nader in Washington. He took out a paper and pencil and said, 'With 1.4 million members, what you have here is a business.' At the time, ARCI had millions of dollars in debt because politics dominated all decision-making. I saw that it was important to have an organization that was economically solid and self-sufficient." Slow Food's publishing arm quickly became successful. The Gambero Rosso guides to wine and restaurants have become the bibles of Italian gastronomy, much like the Michelin guides are in France. A top ranking in Gambero Rosso's wine guide virtually guarantees that a particular vintage will sell out almost instantly. For the past six years, Slow Food has sponsored a biennial Salone del Gusto (The Taste Fair), Italy's largest food show, featuring some 550 food and wine producers. The Salone has become an almost obligatory event for thousands of the world's most important restaurateurs and wine and food importers, and has provided an international market to hundreds of small producers whose goods, until recently, rarely left their village or region.
The effect of this kind of exposure became apparent when I visited a small mill about ten miles from Bra that is part of the Slow Food network. About twenty-five years ago, Renzo Sobrino--son, grandson and great-grandson of millers--took over an abandoned nineteenth-century mill with the idea of producing traditional kinds of cereals, grains and flours. Not only did he intend to use old-fashioned methods, including a nineteenth-century millstone, for some of the grains, he also wanted to revive strains of wheat and corn that had fallen out of use. Sobrino tried to convince local farmers to grow a kind of corn called otto file (eight rows), which has eight large rows rather than the fourteen thin rows of most corn. Although its thick, dark kernels are full of flavor, it was replaced by American hybrid corns that yield five or six times more corn per acre. Even though Sobrino was willing to pay farmers for their crop, many of them simply refused, considering him crazy. Local bakeries, which were his potential clients, only wanted to know the price of his flour and lost interest when they heard it was two or three times more expensive than most industrially produced flour. For many years, Sobrino had to supplement his income by using the mill to mix cement, grinding grain only one or two days a week. "I felt like a Don Quixote quite literally tilting at the great industrial mills," says Sobrino. But now he has all the business he can handle. Williams-Sonoma has even proposed a contract so it can sell his flour and cornmeal in its stores and catalogues.
When you taste Sobrino's products, it is not hard to understand why. He offered me some five-day-old bread that was as soft and tasty as if it had come out of the oven that day. A Piedmontese baker named Eugenio Pol, who shares Sobrino's passion for traditional grains and methods, makes a whole-wheat bread that, although it contains no sugar, no beer yeast and no preservatives, is bursting with flavor and lasts for up to two weeks. Pol gets orders for his bread from top restaurants that are several hours' drive away and has been approached by a Japanese company that would like to sell it in Tokyo. (With Slow Food's help, Pol is setting up a small school for teaching traditional baking methods.)
Producers like Sobrino and Pol have benefited not only from the Slow Food network but from a broad cultural change. Consumers have become more knowledgeable, discriminating, more health and environmentally conscious. Sobrino grinds an ancient Egyptian grain called kamut that is well suited to people who are allergic to wheat. "It didn't evolve like other grains and has fewer chromosomes and is good for people who don't react well to wheat," Sobrino explains. The kamut grain that Sobrino grinds was produced in the United States, which shows that "virtuous globalization" is a two-way street.
But can Slow Food become a mass movement, reaching beyond a relatively narrow elite prepared to spend more at specialty organic food stores? There are some reasons to think it might. Fifty years ago, in the aftermath of World War II, the average European family spent about one-third of its income on food. Today it spends about 15 percent. In the United States the figure is even lower, about 10 percent. In Italy--the Slow Food nation par excellence--food constitutes 18 percent of the family budget, and according to a Slow Food survey, a large majority of Italians say they would be willing to pay up to 20 percent more for food in order to guarantee its quality. In a world where tens of billions are spent each year on such nonessential items as gambling, cosmetic surgery and pornography, there is clearly some wiggle room to spend a few dollars more a week on food.