Slow Food

Slow Food

An Italian answer to globalization.


Long before demonstrators and police battled it out on the streets of Genoa during the G-8 summit, a potentially more influential attempt to guide the direction of globalization was slowly evolving about two hours' drive away in the countryside of the neighboring region of Piedmont in the foothills of the Italian Alps. In the small market town of Bra, in an area known for its red wines and white truffles, is the headquarters of a movement called Slow Food, dedicated to preserving and supporting traditional ways of growing, producing and preparing food. If the French attitude toward globalization is symbolized by farm activist José Bové driving a tractor into a McDonald's, Italy's subtler and more peaceful attitude is embodied in this quirky and intelligent movement, which has taken up the defense of the purple asparagus of Albenga, the black celery of Trevi, the Vesuvian apricot, the long-tailed sheep of Laticauda, a succulent Sienese pig renowned in the courts of medieval Tuscany and a host of endangered handmade cheeses and salamis known now only to a handful of old farmers.

Founded in 1986, in direct response to the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Rome's famous Piazza di Spagna, the Slow Food Manifesto declares that:

A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.

In its first years Slow Food, which has adopted the snail as its official symbol, was heavily concentrated on food and wine, and produced what is considered to be Italy's best guides to wine, restaurants and food stores. But in the mid-1990s Slow Food developed a new political dimension, called eco-gastronomy. "We want to extend the kind of attention that environmentalism has dedicated to the panda and the tiger to domesticated plants and animals," says Carlo Petrini, the movement's founder, a tall, handsome bearded man of 54. "A hundred years ago, people ate between one hundred and a hundred and twenty different species of food. Now our diet is made up of at most ten or twelve species."

Worrying about the fate of the Paduan hen might have seemed a quixotic and elitist concern a few years ago, but with the lingering panic over mad cow disease, the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and the debate over genetically modified food, Slow Food–with its emphasis on natural, organic methods–has suddenly acquired a political importance and popularity that has surprised even its own leaders. Since 1995, when it began to defend endangered foods, the organization has grown from 20,000 to 65,000 members in forty-two countries. To press its political concerns, Slow Food has recently opened offices in Brussels, where it lobbies the European Union on agriculture and trade policy, as well as in New York, where it organizes trade fairs and tries to find markets for traditional food producers.

Two years ago, Slow Food flexed its muscles when the European Union tried to enforce uniformly rigid hygiene standards for all European food producers that were originally invented by the American space agency NASA. The standards have helped to keep astronauts from getting sick in space and are used successfully by corporate giants such as Kraft Foods, but would have imposed impossible burdens of reporting, paperwork and new equipment on thousands of small farmers, driving them out of business. Slow Food started a petition that was signed by half a million people, and eventually Italy obtained exemptions for thousands of artisan food makers.

As national boundaries disappear in Europe and become more porous elsewhere, food has emerged as an important source of identity, giving a new twist to nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach's famous phrase, "We are what we eat." But the secret to Slow Food's appeal is not that it offers a nostalgic backward glance at a world of vanishing pleasures. Globalization, in Slow Food's view, has the potential to help as well as harm the small food producer. On the one hand, globalization has the homogenizing effect of allowing multinational corporations to extend their reach to virtually every corner of the world. But at the same time, by making it easier for members of small minorities (beekeepers or Gaelic speakers) to communicate at a distance, it creates openings for niche cultures to thrive. Rather than being afraid of McDonald's, the Italians feel that they can take it on and win. "We are making the bet on quality," says Petrini. The international network that Slow Food is building is an example of what Petrini calls "virtuous globalization."

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.

As the European Union–in the wake of the recent food scares and, especially, with the prospect of enlarging its membership to include much of Eastern Europe–rethinks its agricultural policy, now is the time for Slow Food to have an impact. European agricultural policy was set in the 1950s, when hunger from the war was still a vivid memory. "The goal was self-sufficiency, and the emphasis was on producing quantity," says Mauro Albrizio, who heads the Slow Food office in Brussels. "Farmers were given subsidies according to the amounts they produced. The European Union would guarantee a price for, say, wheat that was a certain amount greater than the market price, since European farmers were somewhat less productive than American or Canadian farmers. The more you produce, the more money you make, and this encouraged intensive agribusiness practices that put a premium on quantity. There is no reward for quality, for the integrity of the process or the importance of the product to the area." Ninety percent of the EU's agriculture budget, some 42 billion euros–which constitutes 45 percent of the budget of the EU itself–goes toward this kind of price support. But with the prospect of enlarging the EU to include several countries of the former Soviet bloc, Europe's system of farm subsidies may have to be revamped. "To simply extend the current price-support system to all of Eastern Europe would be impossibly expensive," says Albrizio. Various alternatives are now being discussed. Slow Food would like to see the price-support system gradually phased out and replaced by a more modest approach that would not favor quantity over quality. Farmers would receive a subsidy for the number of acres they have under cultivation, and then decide whether they want to push for maximum productivity at a lower price or to concentrate on the high-quality goods that Europe is arguably best suited to produce.

The choice of quality over quantity would seem to have been reinforced by the mad cow epidemic and the recent experience of one of the breeds Slow Food has been trying to protect: the Piedmontese cow. Despite being greatly prized for their cheeses and the fine quality of their beef, the number of Piedmontese cows has decreased dramatically in the past twenty-five years from more than 600,000 to about 300,000, because of their lower productivity. They produce less milk than the more popular Holstein cows. And it generally takes Piedmontese farmers, using traditional feeding methods, about eighteen months to bring their cattle to slaughter, while cattle raised with the help of food additives and growth hormones can be marketed after just fourteen months. Thus the Piedmontese cow recently appeared ready to give way to the inexorable logic of agribusiness.

To prevent the disappearance of prized breeds and species, Slow Food has adopted the concept of the presidio, or defense battalion, creating a list of endangered foods and sponsoring strategies to try to save them, generally in the form of expertise and marketing help. In the case of the Piedmontese cow, Slow Food helped to organize a consortium of sixteen livestock farmers. Rather than urge them to expand their herds and cut expenses to become more cost-effective, Slow Food encouraged them to agree to a series of strict protocols for natural and organic methods of feeding and raising the animals in order to produce the highest-quality beef. What might have seemed like a suicidal strategy a few years ago became a winning one last year when the first cases of mad cow disease were reported in Continental Europe. With beef consumption in Italy dropping by about 30 percent, butchers and consumers were desperate for meat that offered genuine safety guarantees, and demand for Piedmontese beef soared.

Naturally, Piedmontese beef costs somewhat more, about $4 a kilo instead of $3 for the more common breeds. "The average Italian eats about twenty kilos of beef (forty-two pounds) in the course of a year, and if you pay 2,000 lire more per kilo (about 50 cents a pound) for Piedmontese beef, that comes to about 40,000 lire ($18) a year–an entirely manageable cost for excellent-quality, safe meat," says Sergio Capaldo, a local veterinarian who heads Slow Food's efforts on behalf of the Piedmontese cow. "Now, to a meatpacking company or even a butcher, a difference of 90 cents a pound makes a big difference, whereas to the individual consumer with his forty-two pounds a year, it means much less. So if we had an educated consumer who chooses his beef the way he chooses his wine, the whole equation of cost and quality changes."

Once the consumer becomes discriminating, slow-growing cattle such as the Piedmontese breed begin to make sense. "The meat has less fat and cholesterol than many kinds of fish, including sole," says Capaldo. Indeed, according to US Department of Agriculture tests, 100 grams of Piedmontese beef contains 1.7 grams of fat, compared with 11.3 in standard kinds of cattle, and 95 calories, compared with 251 calories in most beef.

That discriminating consumers may affect the way food is produced is not such an improbable idea. We are already seeing some signs of this in our own country [see William Greider, "The Last Farm Crisis," November 20, 2000]. "I think the United States is natural Slow Food territory," says Petrini. "You have a huge movement of organic food and the phenomenon of the microbreweries. Up until ten or twenty years ago, you had two large companies [Busch and Miller] that dominated the beer market. Now you have 1,600 microbreweries." Equally promising, he says, is the rise of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture, where a group of people in a place like New York City makes an arrangement with a farmer in upstate New York to deliver vegetables to the city once a week for six or seven months a year. New technology, such as the Internet, has eliminated the middleman in areas like stockbroking and bookselling, and the same may be the case with food. The Internet has been important in forming and knitting together community agriculture networks. "Community-supported agriculture and farmers' markets eliminate the mediation of the supermarkets," says Petrini. "It is biodiversity from the ground up, with a new class of farmers in direct contact with consumers. Alice Waters [founder of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California] is teaching schools how to create their own gardens. She's Slow Food down to her bone marrow." In fact, during the past year, Slow Food has experienced its greatest growth of new members in California. As a result, Slow Food decided to hold its first US conference in late July in San Francisco.

In today's prosperous, global consumer economy, Slow Food may have a message particularly attuned to the culture of the day: a kind of pleasure-loving environmentalism that does not reject consumption per se but the homogenization and high-speed frenzy of chain-store, fast-food life. The issues that animate the protesters of Seattle and Genoa, Petrini says, are very much part of Slow Food's concern with agriculture and cultural diversity. "I want Slow Food not to be merely a gastronomical organization but deal with problems of the environment and world hunger without renouncing the right to pleasure," he says. "The American gastronomical community simply contemplates its own navel" and has no political consciousness, while the American environmental movement has tended to have a self-denying, ascetic component that regards eating anything other than tofu as hopelessly selfish and decadent. "By now even the Food and Agriculture Organization has recognized that you can't talk about hunger without talking about pleasure," says Petrini. "At the same time, you can't deal with pleasure without being aware of hunger." Many of the foods that Slow Food is protecting, although treated as delicacies today, were peasant foods that were brilliant strategies to stave off hunger and contain worlds of knowledge about intelligent use of the environment. Their preservation and development may mean more than a few good meals.

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