Reprint from The Financial Times, December 12, 2009 By Harry Eyres
I don’t often feel tempted to raise my hand in salute but I’m making an exception for the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Slow Food Manifesto in Paris in December 1989. This is a fraternal greeting to the inspired organisation which, at the tail end of the most violent century in history, provided the perfect antidote to that lamentable paean to speed, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909. Slow Food has not merely mobilised the beneficent force of slowness (which can be surprisingly powerful, like the tree-men Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) but has also provided one of the bases for a new politics of food and environmental quality.
Slow Food’s founder Carlo Petrini, as Italian as Marinetti but in every other way his polar opposite, saw – and set about resisting – the implications of a world and an economy in which food was being turned to industrialised fodder. Ultimately that means no less than a defence of the human and of nature, of cultural diversity and biodiversity.
But if Slow Food is a revolution, it is one conducted with style and grace, not violence. Almost everything about Slow Food is encapsulated in its first act, the protest Petrini organised against the opening of a McDonald’s hamburger joint at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Where the French activist and Roquefort farmer José Bové dismantled a half-built McDonald’s in Millau, Petrini showed he had learned more from the situationists than from the sans-culottes. Instead of breaking glass he set up some trestle tables and assembled a bunch of Italian grannies to load them with home-cooked penne.
Some might also say that act pointed to the limitations of Slow Food as a movement. It was essentially Italian and unserious. Certainly Petrini is a delightfully witty man, but just because someone is witty it does not mean he or she cannot be serious. And in terms of Italianness, it may still be the case that half of Slow Food’s 106,000 members are Italian but the movement has spread slow-growing but sturdy tentacles all over the world, from Burkina Faso to Bangladesh.
Slow Food is particularly strong in North America. That may sound strange but follows the poet Friedrich Hoelderlin’s logic that “where the danger is, there grows also the saving power”. The US is the centre of the global fast food or food-as-fodder industry; it is also the site of resistance movements, from Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ seminal Berkeley restaurant based on local, seasonal produce, to the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods.
But let’s return to seriousness. In the UK, where the movement has not really taken hold, I get the impression Slow Food is still regarded as consisting of a few Islington foodies drizzling Ligurian olive oil over stone-baked ciabatta. It is seen as both elitist and frivolous – the concern of pampered metropolitan sophisticates with no relevance to the junk-food-eating masses.
This is both a grave misrepresentation of what Slow Food is about and a sad reflection of the hopelessly self-defeating nature of British class-based politics.
Slow Food is as much about farming as about foodiness; it is based on the American farmer-poet and essayist Wendell Berry’s observation that “eating is an agricultural act”.
Slow Food celebrations have been held this month in countries as diverse as Uganda, Chile, Mexico and India in defence of threatened local food traditions, crop varieties, artisanal methods of production and sustainable agriculture in general. This may sound quaint but it is also a matter of life and death. As BBC News reported last year, thousands of farmers have committed suicide in the Indian state of Maharashtra alone in recent years (the figure for the whole of India is estimated to be 10,000 a year), saddled with debts they could not repay. Many connect the debts with seeds and fertilisers sold on credit by large agribusinesses.
Ultimately, though, Slow Food is about pleasure. The pleasure of eating, eating as pleasure, is not an exquisite refinement reserved for the elite but an essential component of all human culture. Eating, even more than an agricultural act, is a cultural act, an act that gives meaning, that connects us to the earth and the seasons, and sustains community and conviviality.
Conviviality is at the heart of Slow Food’s philosophy, which is wonderfully non-utilitarian and, it has to be said, non-Protestant. The fast-food and food-as-fodder industries regard food as a means to an end; so too, in a different way, as the brilliant American writer Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food has shown us, does the ideology of nutritionism, which holds that food is not really food but a collection of nutrients which make people healthy (but not necessarily happy or joyful).
There are no more intimate acts than eating and drinking, when we take the produce of the cultivated and uncultivated earth into our bodies, to sustain not only ourselves but a compact with nature. Slow Food’s revolutionary achievement is to remind us that everything starts with that communion, and we must work to make it joyful and responsible again.