In 1986, the fast food chain McDonald’s opened a franchise in close proximity to Rome’s historic Spanish Steps. Carlo Petrini of Bra, Italy and a group of like-minded Italians from the Piedmont region feared that this powerful restaurant chain and other giant international food businesses would threaten Italy’s traditional food and cultural heritage by a steady erosion of quality and integrity. I have said this before and I will say it again: if there is one single thing that unites all Italians, it is their passion for their food and the culture surrounding it. The Slow Food movement was borne out of a desire to push back against the loss of cultural food identity, food diversity, its sources, and the disappearance of the myriad smaller businesses surrounding the food industry that are unable to compete with large companies.
The name can be confusing as it isn’t clear exactly what slow food refers to; it isn’t how slowly food is grown or prepared. Instead, Slow Food is an organization that began with a manifesto stating that everyone deserves not only nourishment, but also real pleasure when eating. Recognizing that food is a universal need and wanting participation from more people, Slow Food International (SFI) was established in 1989 when other countries joined the organization and began their own national and local chapters around the globe. With many new voices joining the conversation over the past 23 years, the original manifesto has evolved to embrace a broader vision and agenda. The “Slow Food International – Good, Clean and Fair Food,” organization has over 100,000 members from 153 countries and is dedicated to celebrating national cuisines as well as protecting and preserving food sources and cultures. In the words of Petrini, “Slow Food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”
I first heard about Slow Food not long after it was established. I was pleasantly surprised to find that where I now live in Italy’s Piedmont Alps, my husband’s homeland, is only about 60 miles from Alba, where Slow Food was born.
I felt then, as I do now, that the Slow Food organization expressed some of my own food concerns, having started out with a horticulture degree before moving firmly into the culinary side of food. My personal opinion is that all food options, slow or fast, have their place in the marketplace and as a personal choice, but one shouldn’t push the other out of existence.
The Slow Food movement has sometimes been criticized as an exclusive eating club, which is not entirely without merit. If, however, you look at the organization as a whole, you begin to understand the complexity of ensuring quality products at a fair price to food producers while minimizing the damage to the environment, all at a sale price that is accessible to most people. Not an easy task. What I like about the organization is that it strives to be inclusive, giving a platform for quite a varied conversation that at time invites controversy. Tackling the difficult and uncomfortable conversations about our food and its production requires a real sense of working together for attainable solutions to our global food needs. It isn’t all talk, either. Slow Food has initiated or joined many ongoing and evolving projects that promote education, biodiversity, and sustainability. Slow Food International (SFI) encourages people to organize themselves into local chapters called conviviums to help discover and encourage buying local, and connect producers with consumers.
The organization helps facilitate finding local solutions to local challenges. SFI has created the designation Presidia to identify hundreds of foods internationally that are near extinction and offers support with concrete resources to preserve these products while promoting biodiversity. Slow Food created the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in 2003, and launched the Terra Madre food community network in 2004. Slow Food’s premiere food event, Salone del Gusto, launched in 1996 and is held biennially in Turin, Italy. The most recent just occurred this past October 25-29, 2012. Salone del Gusto alternates years with the Bra, Italy Cheese Festival. The launch of Pollenzo, Italy’s University of Gastronomic Sciences came in 2004. The school and Wine Bank are housed in a former Savoy residence that was renovated and designated a World Heritage site in collaboration with a local preservation group. One of SFI’s newest projects is called “A Thousand Gardens in Africa,” committed to bringing 1,000 food gardens to schools, villages, and urban areas across Africa. They currently have over 600 in 25 countries. Many projects, many ideas, and many people coming together around our daily need to eat.
How does all this apply to you? Perhaps you might consider joining the Slow Food organization to connect with other like-minded people and discover what is on offer in your area. The United States has an active national branch. Perhaps you don’t live close to any formally organized group, or maybe you don’t have the interest to become formally involved, but you can certainly incorporate a Slow Food approach to your dining experiences. You might consider learning to cook and eat at home more often, if you don’t already. You could seek out unfamiliar food products that are produced locally, and through your purchases, support a small business. Find restaurants that feature local foods and give them a try. You might even join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, sometimes called Local Harvest, sharing in the bounty of local farms by paying for boxes of farm fresh fruits and vegetables as they come into season. You could find and attend a Slow Food-sponsored event or special dinner sometimes held in established restaurants or as a stand-alone catered affair. These are just a few ways that you can discover Slow Food when you might prefer a change of pace from fast food, so get out there and begin your journey of discovery. As the English poet William Cowper once said, “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor.”
Marla Gulley Roncaglia is an American expat living in the Italian Alps. Marla is an accomplished pastry chef, and a master at high-altitude baking. She and her husband Fabrizio (who has also worked as a chef) teach Italian cooking classes and run a bed and breakfast named Bella Baita ("beautiful mountain house"), where they are active supporters of the slow food movement.