Fragrant, pungent aromas waft from the kitchen. I breathe deeply, savoring the primal satisfaction of smelling something marvelous that will soon meet my taste buds. My mouth waters. Hopefully no one else hears my belly rumbling, as I anticipate the fine meal ahead. “Yes, I will have a glass of wine, thank you,” I smile to the host, then find my way to the table. Other guests are there already, friends, comrades, and intriguing strangers. We have joined in this moment to appreciate fine food and each other’s company. It is “A Feast of Friends,” one of life’s finer pleasures.
The preceding vinyette portrays the essence of a philosophy that has come to be known as the “Slow Foods Movement.” Conceived in Italy (where else?), Slow Food grew as a response to the placement of a McDonalds “fast food restaurant” implant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The groups founder, Carlo Petrini, took it personally as “a slap in the face to traditional Italian cuisine.” He sought to demonstrate that Italy’s wealth of regional specialities is far more palatable than a Big Mac. As noted by Petrini, this “industrialization of food was standardizing taste and leading to the annihilation of thousands of food varieties and flavors.” In sort, we are confronting “endangered” food.
Adopting the humble, unhurried snail as its logo, the Slow Food Movement is actually officially known as the “International Movement for the Defense and Right to Pleasure.” For some, this name might bring to mind other activities not having much to do with food, (other than in the erotic applications of whipped cream). Yet Slow Food enthusiasts are not decadent libertines, but rather promote a lifestyle shift that is healthful to both person and planet.
Now an international movement, Slow Food’s head offices are in Bra, in Piedmont, in the north of Italy. Other offices have opened in Switzerland (1995), Germany (1998), New York, USA (2000), and in France (2003). Slow Food boasts 77,000 members in 48 countries, organized into 700 local convivia. (derived from the Latin word “convivia” meaning “life with’) In Italy there are about 40,000 members and 360 convivia. In the rest of the world, there are about 340 convivia and the number is continuing to grow. These convivia worldwide are the linchpins of the Slow Food movement and interpret and represent its philosophy at local level.
The function of the global convivium is to organize local food and wine events and initiatives, creating moments of conviviality, while raising the awareness of products, local artisans and wine cellars. Tasting courses and Taste Workshops are also organized to educate in matters of taste. Volunteerism and decentralization, plus the desire to conserve and protect the authenticity and integrity of food variety and customs, are characteristic of the movement. Integral to its guiding principles is the promotion of pure food that is local, seasonal and organically grown, recognizing the need for environmental stewardship and the protection of biodiversity. Food’s role in cultural diversity is appreciated, as well as the cultivation of taste. Food is experienced as a kind of language and gateway to a culture. Local farmers and artisans are to be supported.
Assisting in its outreach efforts, Slow Food has a publishing company, Slow Food Editore, which specializes in tourism, food and wine. Its catalogue now contains about 40 titles and it also publishes Slow, 'A Herald of Taste and Culture', in five languages: Italian, English, French, German and Spanish. The organization also promotes scores of projects and activities in efforts to revive our increasingly endangered biodiversity. One such project, The Ark of Taste aims to identify and catalogue products, dishes and animals that are in danger of disappearing.
Yet the prime guiding principle of the Slow Foods Movement goes far beyond food. Its true mission is in the cultivation of the appreciation of Pleasure and Quality in Everyday Life. Not just in the appreciation of food, but inclusive of ideas regarding the taking of time to gather with friends and enjoy good food and conversation, as well as the taking of more time for oneself to enjoy the simple pleasures of everyday life. This is an appeal to abandon the race of the mechanized, desensitized, conformist spectacle that modern society has become, and instead embrace the art of living at a slower, more harmonious pace with the rhythm of life. As noted in the Slow Foods Movement Manifesto (see below), it is a call to raise our perspective above the consensus reality of those “who mistake frenzy for efficiency” who became so enamored of the machine that they became more machine like themselves. Consider the pervasiveness of the analogy of the body as a machine, of food as fuel. Consider as well how readily self esteem and the respect of one’s peers is linked to how functional a cog we are to the institutions we serve.
Although we have, in theory, left the machine age for the information age, the assembly line mentality still assaults our psyche pushing speed. Faster is better. Time is money. Must… produce… more… product. We’ve become entrained to the machine, a robotic monkey mind, driven by a kind of scarcity consciousness (there’s not enough to go around... get it while you can). All is scarcity, however, when quality of life is sacrificed to efficiency. Do we honestly enjoy being always on, always “wired,’ always available? Do we not all harbor a secret longing, a nostalgia for some simpler, richer time when we could appreciate all the textures and flavors of life?
But did such a time ever exist for common folk? Considering the expense of ingredients, time and labor, has elegant slow food, with its gracious dining and generous hospitality, always been the perrogative of wealth and nobility? How does one reconcile the demands of fast paced modern life with the asethetics of Slow Food?
While many Americans are driven to work longer hours for less pay or job security, and others find the need to work a number of part time jobs to make ends meet, how can the ideal of life proposed by the Slow Foods philosophy be experienced? Who has the time for it? Who has time to bake hand milled bread, or even create a good balanced home cooked meal daily? And what do we do if those yummy organic “artesian” treats at the local food-store-gone-yuppy are beyond our budget? Must we then resign ourselves to hidden costs of our hectic lifestyle and its attendant fast food in the diminishment of our health and human spirit?
I think not. Part of the solution has to do with economics of scale and embracing community. Indeed that is core to the concept of the convivia. It is as simple as organizing a potluck amongst friends who share an affinity for good food and conversation. Costs and labor are shared in this creative act. Likely the conversation will go beyond food as ideas, experiences and stories are shared. This is far more stimulating than going comatose in front of the tv with a greasy fried food product watching a “reality show.” Chronic bad skin, hair loss, a fat ass, a dull brain, perhaps cancer or the eventual heart attack is the reality here.
Slow Food Awareness entails a commitment to oneself to open, to take the time to notice and appreciate nuances of taste, color, flavor and feeling. It comes from an almost mystical, one could say tantric, appreciation of the beauties of everyday life. It takes pleasure in the art of making food. It notices the shapes, vibrant colors and aromas of fresh vegetables when they are being cut. It sees the mandala that is revealed when a red cabbage is sliced in half. Such awareness sees the sacred in all things and recognizes the gift of food as a sacrament, symbolic of our covenant with Life. As Life Consumes Life To Live, we are grateful to the living being, be it plant or animal, which is sacrificed so that we may continue. Such awareness cannot coexist with the horrors factory farms wherein animals are mass produced for slaughter. Nor can it condone industrialized agribusiness with its emphasis on pesticides and lack of environmental stewardship.
Slow Food need not be elaborate or preparation intensive. A lush organic salad is easy to prepare. Ingredients prepped for a home made soup or stew can be placed in a large, heavy pot and left to simmer on the stovetop, needing only an occasional stirring, filling the home with a delightful aroma that is particularly welcome on a chilly fall or winter day.
In late summer we can harvest the abundant blackberries that tenaciously line our roadsides and abandoned lots, despite all attempts to eradicate them. (Gotta love the spirit of those berries!) Wash off the bugs, put the berries in a bowl. Add some sugar, cinnamon, and tapioca . Roll out a simple pie crust, assemble in a pan, put in the oven and in a hour, Voila! a sumptious dessert for pennies.
There are many more such examples. Our menus and experiences are limited only by our available resources and imaginations. Blessings and Happy Slow Sustenance!
In Praise of Slowness (reprinted from the International Slow Foods website, www.slowfood.com)
One of the first books devoted entirely to snails was written in 1607 by Francesco Angelita of L'Aquila in Italy. He listed many species, traced their histories and described the ornaments that can be made out of their shells.
But his particular focus was on what human beings can learn from the silent life of snails. Careful observation reveals a behavioral pattern that can be summed up in several points. The two main ones are as follows:
- the Snail is "of slow motion, to educate us that being fast makes man inconsiderate and foolish"; - since it carries its house, "wherever the Snail is, that is its home".
Francesco Angelita believed all creatures to be God-sent bearers of the divine message. Slowness was an essential virtue, as was adaptability and the ability to settle anywhere, in any situation. By slowness, he meant both prudence and solemnity, the wit of the philosopher and the moderation of the authoritative governor. We could extend this interpretation to say that the snail takes its time as it trails along, impervious to haste and readily at home everywhere. Cosmopolitan and thoughtful, it prefers nature to civilization, which it takes upon itself, with its own shell.
Such gems of traditional country lore are now part of this animal and explain its extraordinary success, culminating ten years ago in Slow Food's adoption of a little snail as the symbol of an entire movement. It seemed then that a creature so unaffected by the temptations of the modern world had something new to reveal, like a sort of amulet against exasperation, against the malpractice of those who are too impatient to feel and taste, too greedy to remember what they had just devoured.
A symbol allows different people to perceive themselves as united. It is a single idea with which everyone can identify. Each time it is chosen by a group, by a movement, it satisfies their need to communicate, to be similar without forsaking individual identity. The choice of this prehistoric-looking mollusk expressed the desire to reverse the passing of time, to counteract certain bad habits, both present and future. Among the causes of discontent was an obvious first target in the shape of shabby eating habits: fast food restaurants, meaning the reduction of food to consumption, of taste to hamburger, of thought to meatball. Granted, we all know that speed has been the obsession of the modern world for the past hundred years, that it dominates every aspect of social organization and consequently also regulates our meals. Moreover, speed now multiplies our leisure time and empty hours as well, extending that part of the week devoted to relaxation, recreation and pleasure. It is a contradiction that still requires a solution. If only we could look around like snails, warily coming out of our shells, saving energy and drawing more from our contact with the earth and its fruits. Surely this would be a new way of life...
For more information on the Slow Foods movement, please check the following:
The International Movement www.slowfood.com
Slow Food in the US www.slowfoodusa.org
Slow Food Seattle www.slowfoodseattle.org
Slow Food Puget Sound www.sfps.us
THE SLOW FOOD INTERNATIONAL MANIFESTO Endorsed and approved in 1989 by delegates from 20 countries
Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model.
We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods. To be worthy of the name, Homo Sapiens should rid himself of speed before it reduces him to a species in danger of extinction.
A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life. May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.
Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.
In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.
That is what real culture is all about: developing taste rather than demeaning it. And what better way to set about this than an international exchange of experiences, knowledge, projects? Slow Food guarantees a better future.
Slow Food is an idea that needs plenty of qualified supporters who can help turn this (slow) motion into an international movement, with the little snail as its symbol.
By Jonnie Gilman