Ode dines with Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, who believes pleasure can save the world.
Marco Visscher| September 2007 issue
This is no ordinary chicken on the table. Two days earlier it was stuffed with fresh herbs and then cooked in a wood-fired oven for a half-hour and left to rest for 15 minutes. It has been served encircled by chunks of bread drizzled with a tangy vinaigrette. Clearly, little of what we eat is treated with this kind of care in the kitchen.
The chicken-with-bread salad was ordered from the menu by Carlo Petrini, father of an international movement that advocates “slow food”: traditional regional dishes prepared using time-honoured methods. People all over the world meet under the banner of Slow Food—the decentralized organization chaired by Petrini—to promote locally grown products and farmers’ markets. At Slow Food headquarters in Bra, a sleepy little city in northwestern Italy, staff are working on the “Ark of Taste,” a unique project to celebrate our global heritage of small-scale quality foods that are endangered by the spread of industrial standardization at the dinner table: lobster from the Eastern Scheldt region, goat cheese from the Armenian province of Ararat, the Akkajidaikon variety of radish in the Japanese region of Iwaizumi, olive oil from the argan tree that grows along the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
So when Carlo Petrini sits down for lunch at Zuni, a popular restaurant in San Francisco, California, his choice is clear: He’ll have the “slow chicken.” He pierces the roasted chicken with his fork, and falls silent as he begins to chew. His eyes wander inadvertently to a spot on the white tablecloth and then he suddenly looks up, peering with a stern and probing expression. He rolls his eyes and begins to swallow. The corners of his mouth fall and he slowly begins to nod, adding weight to his final verdict: “Bellissimo!”
Petrini has traveled to San Francisco for the launch of the English translation of his book Slow Food Nation: an appeal for food that is good, clean and fair. Good for the body and mind, the taste buds, the sense of smell. Clean, meaning it doesn’t create pollution in its production. And fair because the farmers are paid a fair price.
Does it feel like he’s visiting paradise, I ask, given northern California’s key role in launching modern organic agriculture? Petrini looks up, annoyed. An organic label, he explains, doesn’t provide enough of a guarantee for these three principles. “On some organic fields you see Mexican migrants working as if slavery were never abolished! The tomatoes and citrus fruits may well be organic and tasty, but justice is important too.”
We had walked to Zuni along Market Street, one of San Francisco’s major shopping streets, full of restaurant chains offering a quick slice of pizza or a hamburger. Petrini—a very tall, energetic man of 58 who doesn’t seem to have a “slow” bone in his body—walks at a speedy clip, while passionately explaining why he detests fast-food joints: for their uniform, tasteless meals; the cold, industrial methods of preparing the food and especially the fact that they suggest eating is something you do quickly and thoughtlessly. Yet countless people pack into such places to get what they consider a tasty and affordable meal. Is Petrini’s battle really just for the benefit of wealthy diners who crave fancy food?
An uneasy silence follows. “But they all have a new mobile telephone,” Petrini sputters. “You really need to look at it in a different light. It’s not that quality food—organic, made with local ingredients—is too expensive; it’s that the other food is too cheap.” Later as we sit in Zuni waiting for the chicken, he explains that certain costs aren’t included in the price we pay for food: the cost of cleaning up the environment, of all the agricultural chemicals that harm people’s health, the loss of biodiversity caused by our industrialized farming methods, not to mention agriculture, trade and transportation subsidies to ship food thousands of kilometres over land or sea.
“These are costs that are shifted to the next generation,” Petrini declares. “And the price is kept low because farmers aren’t paid enough. We call it free trade but meanwhile the farmers—particularly in developing countries—are caught in a system prescribed by the Western countries that determine prices. The price tags in our supermarket are deceiving. We aren’t spoiled by the low price of our food, but cursed by it.”
Petrini sounds more like the spokesperson for the culinary wing of the global justice movement than like a gastronome. And that’s right, he says. Petrini wants his organization to become much more than a collection of upscale connoisseurs that shuns deep fryers and microwaves. “Slow Food has become an elitist club in too many countries,” he says sombrely. “The members go out to chic restaurants. They talk about exquisite dishes. But I tell them: You’re not a fully fledged member of Slow Food if you’re not concerned about the fate of the planet and its farmers; otherwise you haven’t understood our philosophy.” His eyes widen: “It’s not just about pleasure; it’s also about taking responsibility.”
While critical of foodies, Petrini is just as critical of activists who ignore the importance of food itself. “Many see food as a superficial, daily activity—something you simply have to do.” Petrini frowns. “They consider gastronomy an exorbitant luxury. But they’re completely wrong. Food is the centre of everything. Food is the breath of life and should be cherished.”
The bread at Zuni is fantastic, Petrini announces, a smile overtaking his face. He contends that Calvinists, the severe wing of the early Protestant movement, took all the fun out of eating—just as they took the fun out of making love, which he notes is the other essential activity for the survival of the species. “Our Western culture is rooted in Puritanism. Environmental activists set out to win souls for their ideology with the same religious conviction as Calvinists. The path to a healthier planet would be forged through moderation and abstinence. That’s a mistake. Who could be motivated that way?”
Petrini isn’t just focussed on food. He believes our lives could stand to move a few beats per minute slower in other ways. The Slow Food founding manifesto states: “A firm defence of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.” Those lines were written back in the 1980s. Nowadays, Petrini’s philosophy appears to be gaining wide acceptance. Slow has now taken on broader meaning and refers to a new way of living adopted by people who are seeking more peace and quiet and who want more time to enjoy the world around them. “Slow” is now linked to all kinds of things.
Petrini smiles when I bring this up. He too has noticed that people are increasingly suffering from the effects of a harried life: stress, sleeplessness, migraines, obesity. “They want to work one day less a week,” he says. “They’re abandoning the gym and trying yoga. They’re ignoring medicines that promise a quick fix and becoming interested in homeopathy. People are opting for slow, for quality.”
Of course Petrini confesses that for him, some things are better done quickly. “I don’t like to stroll; I walk quickly. But everyone needs to find their own pace. Sometimes you want to move fast, sometimes slow. In our modern world, the tempo is too-often raised to the point that people can’t keep up. The question is not how we can move faster so we can do more; the question is how we can use our time wisely so we can live a good life.”
Nature has its own time; you can’t keep increasing its productivity with an industrial approach, he says. That idea alone is ridiculous! A bigger yield—in terms of volume or money—comes at the expense of everything that can’t be measured in units: the environment, flavour, farmers’ dignity. “If we don’t let go of the idea of more and faster and replace it with a new concept of quality, this world is doomed.”
But Petrini doesn’t want to preach.
Once the espresso has been served to round off the chicken lunch, Italian-style, Petrini offers: “I do this all this because enjoyment should become responsible and because the fight for justice should become more enjoyable. We can’t change the world by giving boring lectures.”